The many meanings of Open | Sir Tim Berners-Lee for #TheOpenAgenda
A graduate of Oxford University, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in 1989. He is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
I was recently asked to talk about the idea of “open”, and I realized the term is used in at least eight different ways. The distinct interpretations are all important in different but interlocking ways. Getting them confused leads to a lot of misunderstanding, so it’s good to review them all.
When we tease apart their meanings, we can understand more clearly which aspects of each are the most important. The first, one of the most important forms of openness for the Web, is its universality.
When I designed the Web protocols, I had already seen many networked information systems fail because they made some assumptions about the users – that they were using a particular type of computer for instance – or constrained the way they worked, such as forcing them to organize their data in a particular way, or to use a particular data format. The Web had to avoid these issues.
The goal was that anyone should be able to publish anything on the Web and so it had to be universal in that it was independent of all these technical constraints, as well as language, character sets, and culture.
Net Neutrality is essential to an open, fair democracy
Close to the principle of universality is that of decentralization, which means that no permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the Web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure. This has also been critical to the Web’s growth and is critical to its future.
The actual design of the Web involved the creation of open standards – and getting people to agree to use them globally. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), of which I am the Director, helps create interoperable standards for Web technology, including HTML5, mobile Web, graphics, the Semantic Web of linked data, and Web accessibility. Any company can join and anyone can review and help create the specifications for the Web.
The W3C process emphasizes transparency, openness, and consensus. In practice, fairness, technical quality and speed of process are always a trade-off to balance.
Other bodies work on other layers of the design. The IEEE for physical internet connectivity and the IETF for internet interoperability, for instance. Organizations like the IETF, IEEE and W3C support ‘OpenStand’ which encourages the development of market-driven standards that are non-national, free to access, open to participation, and (for W3C) free of royalty payments.
Open Web Platform (OWP)
With Web Apps, every Web page can become a programmable computer, whether it is on a mobile device, a desktop, a TV, or, in the future, a car console. Native apps are not on the Web, they’re not part of the Web. Native apps that work on a single platform or even a single device are thus more limited than a Web App. I therefore encourage everyone to build Web Apps.
Open Government through Open Data
In 2009, I resolved to encourage more use of data on the Web. Too many websites could generate nice reports as documents, but had no way to access the data behind it to check and build on the results. In February that year I stood up in front of a TED audience and asked them for their data; I even got them to chant: “raw data now”. In April that year, I met with Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister of the UK and with him began the UK Government’s ground-breaking work on Open Data. That same year President Barack Obama announced his commitment to the US Open Government Initiative. In 2010 I went back to TED and showed the audience some of what had been achieved, including Open Street Map’s role in relief efforts in Haiti.
It’s important to me that I can get at the source code of any software I’m using.
In 2012 we launched in the UK’s Open Data Institute (ODI). ODI is a non-profit institute that incubates startups and promotes open-data businesses in East London’s Tech City. ODI was created to take advantage of and to help guide the wave of open data adoption by business that is happening now. It is an exciting time for open data, but there is a huge amount more to do.
Openness with personal data on the Social Net
The word “open” is often used in the sense “I wouldn’t be that open with my personal life”. We are as a society learning how to draw the right boundaries in this new age. I won’t go into this in detail, but connected issues include the extent to which a social networking site which helps people share information also benefits from the data in completely different unforeseen ways, and ideas about what different sorts of data about people should be used for anyway. These issues may lead to be cultural norms as well as possibly new technical architectures.
While it’s not really a feature of the Web, a concern for a lot of people is whether they can choose which apps run on their own phone or computer. An Open Platform means having the right to install and write software on your computer or device. One motivation to close off a computing platform comes from a manufacturer wanting to allow you to experience their content on your machine without being able to store it or pass it on. Some systems are very closed, in that the user can only watch a movie or play a game, with no chance to copy anything or back it up. Some systems are very open, allowing users to take copies of files and run any application they like. Many systems fall in between, letting users pay for additional material or an experience.
The W3C community is currently exploring Web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers. In this space in particular, W3C seeks to lower the overall proprietary footprint and increase overall interoperability, currently lacking in this area.
In the US particularly, the situation is aggravated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), two laws which allow a person who uses a computer improperly to be jailed as a felon for a long time. These unjust laws colour the debate so much in the US that some people react by saying that all platforms should be completely open, so that no one can be said to use them improperly. Hopefully these laws will be fixed through debate about how to balance the needs of creative people to be paid and the needs of consumers to be able to contribute but also to be able to rip, mix, quote and archive this material.
“Open Source” is another way “open” is used on the web, one which has been and is very important to the Web’s growth. It’s important to me that I can get at the source code of any software I’m using. If I can get at the source code, can I modify it? Can I distribute the modified code and run it on my machine? As Free Software Foundation lead Richard Stallman puts it, “free as in freedom rather than free as in beer”.
Open Access is a Web-based movement specifically about free (as in beer) access to the body of academic learning. Governments, and therefore taxpayers, pay for research via grants but often the results of the research are kept in closed-access academic journals. The results are only available to those at big universities. The poor and those in remote rural areas cannot participate.
Open Access journals are academic journals legally and technically available openly on the Web at zero cost.
These have to be funded either by publication fees, which in turn have to be agreed to by research funders, or through the implementation of a very low cost Web-based system. Nowadays, governments (with the US NIH taking a lead), and the European Commission are starting to require open access to the results of taxpayer-funded research.
Open Internet and Net Neutrality
When we talk about keeping the internet free and open, we are often worried about blocking and spying. One of the ways in which we protect the Web is by ensuring Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is about non-discrimination. Its principle is that if I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or a greater quality of service, then we can both communicate at the same level. This is important because it allows an open, fair market. It’s essential to an open, fair democracy. The alternative is a Web in which governments or large companies, or frequently a close association of the two, try to control the internet, with packets of information delivered in a way that discriminates for commercial or political reasons. Regimes of every sort spy on their citizens, deriving hugely accurate and detailed profiles of them and their intimate lives. Today, the battle is building. The rights of individual people on the Web are being attacked, and at the moment only a few people really understand and realize what is going on.
The World Wide Web turns 25 next year. We have come a long way, but we must all continue to push for these various forms of openness in the appropriate places. Only then can we ensure that the Web is for everyone.