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We Need to Save the Web

OK, the title is a bit dramatic, but we have to face it: the situation is serious in the small world of web browsers. Little by little, users lose what should be theirs. And if you’re reading this, it means that you’re one of the users.

When David Becomes Goliath

The old web was better.

Of course, that’s not true. I’m exaggerating, I know that.

We won’t forget the pain of our ancestors of the twentieth century, we won’t sink in a blinding and short-sighted nostalgia, here’s what the web was in before 2000:

A screenshot of Amazon in 1995
Amazon, 1995. That’s ugly, you’re right. And it was actually hard to reach this page, as Google didn’t exist. But, as less than 100 000 websites were online, well… (Other images can be found on the excellent Version Museum.)

At the time, Amazon was almost nothing more than a library. What’s more harmless than a library? What’s more beautiful than spreading books and knowledge at a small price? "One million titles, consistently low prices." And, at the same time, "Earth’s biggest bookstore."

This very same company is today accused of a lot of things: destroying small libraries, impoverishing small businesses, humiliating supermarket distribution, destroying employment, globalizing culture, and even forcing its drivers to urinate in bottles to keep on delivering packages on time.

What happened in between? It’s quite simple: Amazon grew up. Amazon became gigantic. Amazon turned into a monster who ate everything.

You’ve heard this story many times. The small startup, the guy in the garage eating pizzas, the nights spent in front of a cathodic computer screen, the exponential growth, the benefits on economy, employment, science, culture…

This story is beautiful. It’s incredibly biased, but it’s beautiful, it’s appealing. And for reluctant communists we use appropriated lexical trickery to put the idea deep in everybody’s mind. This story is beautiful, that’s it.

Damaged parts of planes back from the front
Canonical example of the survivorship bias. In order to improve planes, it’s important to armor them where they have not been hit: this image doesn’t show where planes are not hit, it shows where the lost planes have been hit. It’s so counter-intuitive that we required an important statistician, Abraham Wald, to understand the concept. But well, knowing this doesn’t prevent some medias from praising the meritocratic propaganda of the web giants.

Amazon is not alone. A lot of web giants like to talk about their modest origin and their amazing journey. Giants are big, for sure, but they used to be small. They changed the world, and it worked because the world needed them. They deserve this, because they’re on the user’s side.

This story is appealing… Until when?


This startup story is not the only matrix story appealing for the computer science, for the Internet, for the web. At an early stage, voices rose to fight against the greedy appetite of countries. The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, before the birth of the EFF, is an important cornerstone of this awareness.

Countries are greedy, and so are companies. The unavoidable raise of the merchandising of the web has not always been seen as good news, for example in France for some pioneers of the web.

Because at the beginning, the web was not really a capitalist thing. Created by scientists, put in the public domain on purpose, the web and its tools are far from interesting for people looking for a fast profitability. Another speech, prevailing while nobody was caring, presented the web as the transfer of a hippie community into the cyberspace. Borderless, unbidden, decentralized, it was supposed to be a space of freedom and to transform us into actors, not customers.

Microsoft in 1975
Long hair, sunglasses, impressive beards… We’re not in Woodstock, but in the group photo of the first Microsoft employees, at the end of the seventies.

This hope for emancipation is not a view of the mind. As explained by its "creator", the web included in its original idea the seed of happy horizontality. The tool, used by enlightened people, was supposed to bring them to creativity and freedom.

By the way, opposing libertarian hippies and greedy capitalists is particularly inappropriate here: they are the same people. We can, for example, quote the public interest in Steve Jobs for LSD, and the importance given to mysticism throughout his life.

And Steve Jobs is not alone: we can enjoy Bill Gates "confessions" about his youth experiences in Playboy, enjoy the openly progressive position of Richard Branson on drugs, enjoy the incomparable Elon Musk’s antics. It’s easy to understand how the same people have been able to navigate between these two ideals depending on their personal and professional situations.

The creators of the web giants grew up during a period and in an atmosphere suitable for sharing. They also achieved creating a kind of community. Even the word "community" is largely adopted by digital platforms, as it was adopted by hippy communities. Then, should we be surprised when streamers talk about their "communities" on (Amazon’s) Twitch, while the word was, a few decades ago, referring to kolkhozes, kibbutzes and other artifacts of the soviet ideology?

Maybe the "old web" simply died because its glorious creators fulfilled their dreams and seamlessly adapted their values. But then, what should we "save" the web from? Should we fight its original figures who were so successful?

Dark Souls

What should we save the web from?

After all, it’s totally OK to be professionally successful, even if some values have to be adapted. These big companies changed the world, and in doing so they improved employment, wealth, science, technology. What’s the problem?

We could talk for a long time of advertising problems, of systemic digital filing, of growing fake news. We could also indicate that these unicorns hugely rely on public infrastructure while being the masters of tax "optimization."

Let’s look at the big picture. Beyond political affinities, some behaviors can’t be tolerated. Even the United States of America, more liberal than socialist, can fight against their own big companies. These situations are not unbearable only for end users, they also are for the economy. Then, different voices raise, and finally reach the courts.

Advertisement for Google Chrome on Google’s front page
Google didn’t hesitate for long to use its monopoly on search engines to drive people to use Chrome, their own browser, with advertisements on the most popular web page in the world.

Now, for these big companies who split the web like a cake with their services, the most important thing is not the time spent online by their "customers." What’s really important is to change the web for their own interest. They have to shrink the user’s power, and to deploy their own agenda. Not necessarily for the public interest, as we’ll see later.

That’s what we need to save the web from.

The old web wasn’t better. But, when we think twice, the future web may be worse.

Here we are. The introduction is over. Did you find the title of this article a bit too dramatic? You’ll be surprised by the next one.