An Open Web

The Open Web Stack

While the battleground that we have established is a personal one it is important to understand that there other other battles being fought that may not be so visible to us. Many of these have already taken place and have helped shaped the Open Web, however technology being what it is these battles are never over. The struggle continues. New standards have to be developed to keep up with new technologies, new open technologies have to be developed to keep up with closed technologies, and in some cases regulations need to be established guaranteeing online freedoms and the Open Web.

A lot of these battles happen in a realm that seems beyond our personal control however it is important to be aware of them and to know that this is not just a battle for the your desktop, browser, and social networks.

One of the least visible arenas happens in the layers beneath the browser in a technical realm that most of us do not understand or do not know exists. These layers are important because they not only gave us the Open Web but its ongoing survival also depends on them.

The Four Technical Layers

Any computing device can at some real level be separated into layers of hardware and software. Numerous strata of hardware and software are sandwiched between the physical components of keyboard and screen that mediate our everyday computing experience. Many more layers still separate our own computer from the millions of other devices that make up the Internet as we know it.

The entire Internet can be conceived as consisting of four basic technical layers. Each of these layers handles a different level of communication between networked devices, and is known as a protocol. The four layers together compose the Internet Protocol Suite.

The lowest level protocol is the link layer. This describes the actual physical hardware device, such as an Ethernet or WiFi connection, which ultimately handles the transfer of data.

Atop the link layer we find the internet layer and the transport layer. The internet layer describes the protocol for the movement of data from one device to another, while the transport layer is responsible for ensuring that any data sent along the network arrives intact at the intended destination. The protocols that occupy these layers are commonly referenced together as Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP.

The final layer is the one that we are most intimately familiar with: the application layer, which is responsible for the content that is communicated over the network. The most familiar protocols in the application layer include HTTP, FTP and the various protocols which handle Email.

Each of these technical layers has its own set of Open Standards—agreed and documented rules—that enable them to communicate horizontally and vertically.

As we know in hindsight, each of these open standards created an explosion of innovation. Ethernet enabled companies such as Cisco, 3Com and others to emerge and compete in an area that used to be dominated by huge vendors who built super-expensive networking systems designed by telephone companies to specifications hammered out over years in Inter-Governmental standards bodies.

Similarly, TCP/IP allowed independent companies, the first ISPs to compete at providing network services to companies and individuals, breaking, often for the first time, monopolies that the telephone companies were granted by government. This introduced competition driving down the cost of moving bits around and also enabled a whole ecosystem of software components, many free and open source. Author David Weinberger would later describe this system as “small pieces loosely joined.” This new network created out of small objects developed by small teams using open standards and protocols was a completely new model.

The Open Web Layer

On top of these layers is where we live out our virtual existence. The Web sits on top of these 4 layers—this is what we mean by ‘The Open Web Stack’. It is effectively where we can friend, share, innovate, communicate, learn, create and collaborate through the huge array of web services and social networks available to us.

The Open Web Stack is incredibly important not just for the Open Web but it has also enabled ‘closed’ services and many of the things we know today could not have been realized without the Open Web Stack. If you try to imagine what it would have been like to create Google without the Open Web it is impossible. Google would have no customers or content if it was not for the Open Web.

The Open Web Stack continues to disintermediate and disrupt sector after sector. We find businesses and whole industries having to change their models and compete with a whole new set of players ranging from individuals to companies to non-profit organizations.

The Open Web Stack is successful because they are open technologies and standards shepherded by non-profit organizations which are custodians of a bottom-up process taking inputs from and creating consensus from a wide variety of stakeholders.

Having 100 parallel Internets or 100 World Wide Webs governed by incompatible “standards” would suffocate the network effects that we enjoy on our one interoperable Web. However this is where we are headed. On top of these four layers we are increasingly seeing the closing of this stack. This is the closed web—it kills the stack at the top most layer by closing down the ability to communicate vertically and horizontally. It kills innovation and stifles collaboration.

Hence the fight for the Open Web is also an ongoing fight for layers you might not 'see' but which are nevertheless very important. The following chapters cover some of these important topics - Application Programming Interfaces (API), Cloud Computing, and the regulated filtering of content.