Thursday, 28 July 2011

What Web Science studies is "the InterWebs"

The Internet is made of cats according to the researchers on the YouTube rathergoodstuff channel, although a closer reading of their work reveals a more subtle cat - tube duality reflecting the popular perception of "Teh Internets" as both content and delivery channel.

Engineers make a clear distinction between the Internet (a global network of networks) and the Web (a distributed information space that uses the Internet to provide access to interlinked content through a combination of protocols, data formats and identifiers such as HTTP, HTML and URI).

"Browsing", "navigating" and "information discovery" are the kinds of generic activities that web developers and information scientists concern themselves with, but the more common labels Social Networking, Internet Video, Blogging, Online Banking, Open Source Development, Internet Porn, E-research and Internet Shopping describe what people are actually achieving with (and within) the (application-neutral) information space of "the Web".

These various categories of practice and activity are distinctive enough to have their own names and their own specialist kinds of interaction (shopping baskets, playlists, blogrolls) even though people may be simply (reductively) "navigating web pages" using the same technology (a Web browser connecting via HTTP to a Web server) on the same devices (a home desktop or laptop) to engage in all these activities.

Those web engineers and content providers building on the Web to provide Internet Shopping (e-commerce, b2b, secure financial transactions, product databases, stock control, warehouses and delivery) have different concerns to those dealing with Internet Video (rights acquisition, media streaming, content licensing, bandwidth negotiation, format transformation). The activity supporting each of these practices can be modelled as a network of stakeholders (providers, consumers, participants, brokers, technologies, marketing channels); looking in detail at any particular activity reveals a web of information and data. The Web as a whole is the conjunction of these individual activities - neither entirely separate, nor completely merged and integrated but overlapping and interacting, all built on the simple foundation of the Web architecture, but realised in different kinds of organisation drawn from different industries, with different expectations and rules, communicating through different kinds of sites, perhaps on different devices.

The bigger picture of the Web then is not a monolithic whole nor a homogenous distribution of uncoordinated components; it is rather a loose affiliation of semi-independent content networks (webs) with their own practices and technologies and business (sustainability) models, their own ecology of providers and consumers. Held together by W3C-mandated standards, policies and architectural overview, the Web at scale is a network of webs - the InterWebs - mutually reinforced and stabilised by each others success and contribution to the whole.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Why the Web Should be an Open Platform

As an open access advocate involved in developing technologies and policies to help the scientific and research communities share knowledge, I often find myself talking about Open Access, Open Educational Resources, Open Government Data, Open Scientific Data and the revolution in intellectual property practice that the Web has precipitated. More recently, as part of the Web Science research activities at the University of Southampton, I have been critically re-examining these notions of Openness and the Web - what do we mean by openness, what do we want from openness, and is openness a good thing? The fundamental question of why the Web is open and whether it will continue to be open are discussed in the paper Could the Web be a Temporary Glitch? that my colleagues and I presented at the 2010 Web Science conference.

Bill Thompson (BBC journalist) got me thinking more about these issues the other day. In an essay The open internet and its enemies published as part of the BBC World Service debate on openness, he said:
I believe that if we want an open society based around principles of equality of opportunity, social justice and free expression, we need to build it on technologies which are themselves 'open', and that this is the only way to encourage a diverse online culture that allows all voices to be heard.
Many people would agree with this (especially the techno-optimists among us), but why should this statement be true now specifically, and of the Web specifically? History tells us that we built our own "open societies" on privately owned presses, not an open printing platform. What we did have was the appropriate legal and political supplements to establish the notion of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Eventually. Of course, the presses came before the freedom, and in some ways the presses precipitated the freedom because the technology was sufficiently open to be not entirely controllable by the state.

The Web is better than the printing press or the radio or the television at distributing information; can't we just accept the Web for that improvement in engineering (and goodness knows there is enough challenge by in that innovation alone) and legislate the appropriate balances of power and access? Why does it matter if someone owns the technology, or if it is not freely available? Why do we need to insist on the Web/Internet being an open and neutral platform instead of a closed, commercially (or governmentally) controlled environment?

In his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Internet needs to be open as a "generative system" to allow unanticipated change to emerge through unfiltered contribution from broad and varied audiences. Zittrain's argument is focused on technological innovation, but it could also be applied to societal development - we need broad ranging democratic engagement to make the best of our society (to innovate what we might call its "social machinery").

The open technology of the Web doesn't replace legal declarations or political commitments, but it does complement Freedom of Speech agendas. The law might say that you have a right to free speech, but it doesn't give you a platform on which to speak; the Web is a platform for communication that offers very few barriers for free speech.

It is tempting to think of the Web as "a channel for delivering premium content" and to allow it to be dominated by commercial interests. It is tempting to think of the Web as a theatre of cybercrime and cyberwarfare and to allow it to become dominated by policing and security interests. It is vital that we continue to see the Web primarily as a platform for communication, and that we allow basic rights and freedoms to dominate our plans and strategies for its future. Open technologies and open platforms are not necessary for a free society, nor do they guarantee a free society. But they do offer the potential of realising important societal freedoms more effectively than the alternative.