An Open Web

Network Services Connect People

So far we have defined some of the battleground for the Open Web and a strategy for the battle tilted towards you controlling yourself. Let’s look at the actual services that connect together people on the open Web.

Blackbox Services

While you can communicate with others directly on the Web, the current trend is for services that act as hubs. In the early days of the Web, email, instant messaging, and web browsing were controlled by a single person on their computer. Sharing and participation were controlled by you. Now we use Facebook, Google Apps like GDocs, Twitter, and countless other services to do a form of group computing. These private websites provide black boxes which require our participation.

As identified in the last chapter, the invisible software infrastructure of the Internet and Web is built upon Free Software. Likewise, all major web applications used today are built upon Free Software technology successes. But they support neither the code nor community practices of Free and Open Source Software development. Since we have established that the desire for the Open Web is a desire for your own autonomy, a battle for you, the open web cannot be free until the application layer is also Free, as in Free Software.


Facebook is but a piece of software that runs on the GNU/Linux operating system with thousands of servers working together in some super-secure data center in an nondescript building that allows you to connect with your people. Facebook is not Free Software. One does not have the freedom to run, study and change, redistribute and improve, nor give back changes one wants to make to any community. Rather, all you are allowed to do is enter, participate and (sort of) leave Facebook.

Facebook can never be Yourbook. Facebook provides forms of data portability for you, but if you want to use this service, you must use their standard application programming interfaces (API). This is not Free Software nor is it Open Source. It is NOT Open. APIs are controlled by Facebook and may change at any time. APIs are fauxpen, fake open.

Facebook is the darling of the web startup scene. Neither haircut, fixed gear bike, nor any amount of forbidden fruit seems to change the web startup culture built upon minnovation (minimum-innovation). Built on Free Software, locked applications and proprietary stealth development chart the course of the current Web.

Free Network Services

However, network services are different from Free Software. Many including Free Software Foundation’s Benjamin-Mako Hill and Tim O’Reilly from O’Reilly Books argued at OSCON in 20091 that Free Software is computing where you control your own technology. Network services are a form of group computing. It takes some rethinking how to apply the same principles of Free Software to make a Free Network Service.

In the earlier section “Your Rights and Freedoms,” we outline some principles that allow you to make the choice to fight the Open Web. Fighting for the Open Web also requires fighting for Free Network Services. It’s a fight for a healthy ecosystem not just yourself, but for all autonomous individuals to share and communicate clearly. This battle is for people working together to make federated systems.

In March 2008, many leading advocates including Evan Prodromou of Status.Net, Mike Linksvayer from Creative Commons, Mako-Hill from FSF, Bradley Kuhn from Software Freedom Law Center came together in Boston to find a path forward in the battle for the open Web. The picture painted was bleak. All of the top 10 website, save for Wikipedia, had the ability to commit great disservices to the freedoms of the average web user on-demand.2 In almost every category, the autonomy of individuals on the Web is at risk. As Benjamin Mako-Hill points out:3

“The current generation of network services or Software as a Service can provide advantages over traditional, locally installed software in ease of deployment, collaboration, and data aggregation. Many users have begun to rely on such services in preference to software provisioned by themselves or their organizations. This move toward centralization has powerful effects on software freedom and user autonomy.”

From this meeting in Boston emerged the Franklin Street Statement (FSS) and the project, working towards a definition of what is a Free Network Service. Possibly still too early to define completely, a Free Network Service is generally one that chooses to release software for the service under a Free Software license and allows a user to control her data. Arguable more important for the ecosystem is to consider recommendations for supporting that ecosystem.

In your battle for the Open Web, it is important to consider what services are Free Network Services. While services might represent some amazing boost in functionality, they may be at the detriment of you, your autonomy, and those people connected to you.

For developers in the open Web ecosystem:

  • They should release software source code.
  • The code which is human readable and compilable into code that machines can read, under a license which supports releasing source code on a network service.
  • The major license for this is the Affero GNU General Public License,4 a modification of the major Free Software license, the GNU GPL.5
  • Developers supporting the open Web should replace popular non-free alternatives when possible.6
  • And finally, developers should work to replace centralized services with open distributed ones when possible.

Your service providers should choose Free Software for their services. They should release customizations to their software under a Free Software license like the GPL or AGPL. And, they should allow for data portability and user autonomy built into their systems. They should respect your autonomy and choice. You should be able to control your private data.

Federated Social Web

It’s now 2011, three years since the Franklin Street Declaration and in many ways, and it is a similar climate to when Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation for network services. Unlike this social and technical movement, the hope for Free Network Services comes down to non-profits supporting free projects like Wikipedia and the slow re-implementation of closed services by ragtag groups building community projects.

Meanwhile, web startups like StatusNet are building the federated social web as a Free Network Service, not just a clone of Twitter. Evan Prodromou, founder of Status.Net summarized in his Federated Social Web Top 10 of 2010 blog post, the social web and Free Network Service space has been most active in 2010.7

The most interesting development (as in happening, not as in software development) has been Diaspora. Prodromou said, “In the wake of the F8 [Facebook] keynote, a group of four students at NYU announced a kickstarter project to create a distributed social network. Unlike other mad-genius announcements, they managed to raise 0,000 USD to fund the project, with an unprecedented level attention from technology and mainstream media.”

Mark Zuckerberg donated ,000 USD to Diaspora, the New York Times and BBC made a big deal about Diaspora as it being a Facebook killer. This could be the face of a real sustainable Free Network Service. It could be a service which supports your autonomy. Prodromou goes on to highlight that, “the stakes are high for Diaspora. A high-profile failure could be a huge setback for social web federation—essentially dooming its prospects for the consumer web. A high-profile success can potentially be the engine for a virtuous cycle of growth.”

Either way, you have choices in your fight for the open web. Free Network Services support your autonomy.

  5. Generally, most assume that Google does not like the AGPL license because Google and many other large corporations are notorious for using Free Software and hiding behind a network in order to not have to return software source code back to the general public. This is beyond the scope of this discussion, but an interesting point nonetheless.^
  6. If any indication of the past struggles in technology have any bearing on the future, a great business plan would be to pick any of these categories and replace it with a Free Network Service and sort out a business plan. There are essentially complete categories needing Free Network Services including Internet portal, office suites, social, creation apps, publication, and distribution, utilities, backend support, project hosting, knowledge bases and more. If interested, please visit:^