The web we may have lost

The current blow to the open web that is the Net Neutrality ruling feels terrible to me. My generation saw the web emerge and many of us owe our careers to it.

There are a few reasons why the ruling is terrible. First of all are the things that everybody should worry about. Allowing ISPs to favour some traffic over others turns the web into a media of the elite. Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker explained this in detail in her CNN opinion piece. The other reason is that a web controlled by ISPs stifles innovation and opens a floodgate for surveillance as explained in this excellent Twitter thread by @jtm_.

I am not surprised that it came to this. The world-wide-web always scared the hell out of those who want to control what people consume and what their career is. The web was the equaliser.

Anyone can publish, anyone can consume and learn. And there was no way to protect your content. People could download, share and remix. From a pure capitalist point of view this is anarchy. From a creativity point of view, it is heaven.

Before we had the web all the information you wanted to access meant you either had to pay or you had to put a lot of effort in. I remember in school cycling to the library and lending out books, CDs and later DVDs. I also remember that I had to be on time or the thing I wanted to research wasn’t available. I didn’t have the money to buy books. But I was hungry to learn and I love reading.

When I got access to the web this all changed. My whole career started when I got online and I taught myself to start writing code for the web. I never finished any job education other than a course on radio journalism. I never went to college as we couldn’t afford it.

I went online. I found things to learn and I found mistakes I could help fix. I was online very early on when the web was, well – shit. I wasn’t tempted by thousands of streaming services giving me things to consume. Even downloading an MP3 was pretty much wishful thinking on a dial-up connection that cost per minute. I used the web as a read and write medium. I wrote things offline, dialled up, uploaded my changes, got my emails and disconnected.

As a kid I would ask my parents to stop at motorway gas stations to see trucks and cars from other countries. We didn’t have much money for holidays, so any time I could meet people outside my country was a thrill for me. You can’t imagine the thrill I felt when I had my first emails from people from all over the world thanking me for my efforts.

Using the web, I could publish world-wide, 24/7 and could access information as it happened.

This was a huge change to going to the library or reading newspapers. A lot of the information I gathered that way was outdated before it even got published. Editing and releasing is a lengthy process. There’s a flipside, of course. Materials published in a slower, more editorial process tend to be of higher quality. I learned that when I published my books. I learned that having a daunting technical editor and a more formal publishing format pushed me to do better. A lot of what I had blogged about turned out to be not as hot as I thought it was when I re-hashed it in book form.

That’s the price to pay for an open publishing platform?—?it is up to the readers and consumers to criticise and keep the publishers in check. Just because it is online doesn’t mean you should trust it. But as it is online and you can publish, too, you can make it better.

One great thing about an open web was that it enabled me to read several publications and compare them. I didn’t have to buy dozens of newspapers and check how they covered the same topic. I opened them one after the other and did my comparison online. I even got access to the source materials in news organisations. I had quite a chuckle seeing how a DPA or Reuters article ended up in other publications. A web without Net Neutrality wouldn’t allow for that. I’d be fed the message of the publisher that paid the most to the ISP. That’s shit. I might as well watch TV.

I spent 20 years of my career working on and for the web. I did that because when I started it was a pain in the backside to get online. I felt the pain and I very much enjoyed the gain. I had to show a lot of patience geting the content I wanted and publishing my work.

I didn’t have much money from my job as a radio journalist. I took a 10 pack of floppy disks with me to work (later on I used DVD-RWs and re-wrote them). I downloaded whole web sites and articles at work and read them offline at home. I still have a few CDs with “Photoshop tutorials” and “HTML tricks” from back then. Offline browser tools like HTTrack Website Copier or Black Widow were my friends.

At home, I didn’t “surf” as we do now. I opened many browser windows, loaded all the sites and then disconnected. It was too expensive to be online. I would disconnect and go through the browser cache folder to save images that loaded instead of looking at them loading. Dial-up meant hat I paid the same for every minute online as I would have paid for calling someone.

I’ve always wanted to make this better. And I wanted to ensure that whoever wants to use the web to learn or to find a new job or make some money on the side can do it.

And this is where I am angry and disappointed that there is even a possibility that Net Neutrality is in danger.

There is a lot to hate about the “cool viral video” PSA from Chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai

It is smarmy, arrogant and holy crap is it trying to be trendy and cool. But what riled me most about it is that the FCC thinks the main points of worry when it comes to the users of the web are:

  • Posting Pictures of food and animals
  • Shopping
  • Watching media-produced shows and movies
  • Be a fan of the same
  • Post Memes which are remixes of the same

And what scares me even more is the thought that they could be right. Maybe this debate now is a wake-up call for people to understand that the web is a voice for them. A place for them to be a publisher instead of a consumer or repeater of other content in exchange of social media likes and upvotes. It is time to fight for the web, once again.

I’ve always wanted to keep the big equaliser available for all. And I am excited to see what will come next. I look forward to see who will do amazing things with this gift to humanity that is an open publication platform. And how cool is it nowadays to have laptops and mobile phones to carry with you? You can sit in a cafe, access WiFi and you can be and do whatever you want. Wherever inspiration hits you or you try to find something out – go for it.

I sincerely hope that this is what the web still is. I understand that for people who grew up always online that the web is nothing special. It is there, it is like running water when you open a tap. You only care about the water when it doesn’t come.

And I hope that people still care that the web flows, no matter for whom or what the stream carries. The web did me a lot of good, and it can do so for many others. But it can’t do that if it turns into Cable TV. I’ve always seen the web as my media to control. To pick what I want to consume and question it by comparing it. A channel for me to publish and be scrutinised by others. A read-write medium. The only one we have. Let’s do more of the write part.

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