Web Everywhere, Justice Nowhere
One Head Above
The web is everywhere: at home in all your rooms, in subways, in planes, in boats, in space. The web is everywhere: at work to work, at home to have fun, or vice versa. The web is everywhere: in the morning to wake up and listen to the news, at noon to play while you’re eating, in the evening to watch series, and at night to fall asleep with music.
A lot of people worked hard in order to get the web everywhere. If we only talk about the software layer (that’s not fair for the treasures hardware had to create, but unfortunately time is running out), we’ll for example think of the people behind Wi-Fi protocols, cryptography algorithms, CSS specifications and HTML parsers.
Well, no. Actually, not at all. We never think of them. Never ever.
We click on the Chrome icon, and we think a little bit of Google. Even when we’re not fully aware of that.
If its search engine has been a real revolution, Google has however been a bit late for its browser. Chrome is born in 2008, 5 years after Safari, 6 years after Firefox, 13 years after Opera and Internet Explorer. And today it’s almighty, with tiny crumbs let for its opponents that the youngest readers may even not know.
The "theory" of runoff
Runoff may work for some topics, where a leader would let its wealth and fame go down to all the stakeholders. But it doesn’t work very well for the web tools.
To be honest, Google would almost look like a nice fellow: the company emphasizes its technical and financial involvement in free software, especially with its Summer of Code. A lot of tools they created are free, and it would be hard to blame them for their work on open source.
However, it’s not enough. Some examples show the very bad situation where some open source projects are, even when they’re used by a vast majority of simple web users. Let’s talk about two of them.
The first one is OpenSSL. This library provides cryptography tools largely used by, among other tools, HTTP servers and clients. It’s a cornerstone of the current web. But when, in 2014, a security breach called Heartbleed was found, everybody looked at the team responsible for this disaster. Well, "team" may be slightly too big, as only one person was working full time on the project. And the world discovered the precariousness of OpenSSL, lost among other ignored but essential libraries.
The second one is cURL, a tool that can retrieve various content from various servers. As OpenSSL, cURL is installed everywhere, on about 10 billion terminals. Impressive, isn’t it? Which "team" does this tool rely on? 95% of the work has been done by one person. Only one person, that’s all? Actually less, because more than 20 years were needed before this person has been able to be paid to work full time on cURL.
How are these two projects linked with our subject? Why do we use these two examples to complain, one more time, about the world we live in?
Because it’s a source of hope.
We Are Legion
The web is not only what the browsers let us see. Behind the website’s magic, we have hundreds of shadow tools in charge of transiting data all around the world. They are the clock’s cogs, the cloud’s molecules, Santa’s elves: always there but rarely shown.
These tools use the same protocols, the same formats, the same standards. They talk to each other, automatically, without requiring anything more but common languages and interoperable procedures.
This magic isn’t magic. It required the genius and the work of architects behind these protocols, formats, standards. With an incredible stability, these technologies have seen a lot of very different uses raise and fall, from a simple text page to 3D games with hardware rendering. The foundations didn’t evolve much, so that a website created more than 30 years ago can be displayed correctly in your current browser. No, it’s not magic, it’s not the product of chance. Some people thought about this really hard. Having everything working is not normal, it’s a real technical achievement.
Diversity has played an important role in this stability. As it’s not possible to change all the servers, clients, pages and tools at the same time, each piece of the clockwork has to keep some kind of backwards compatibility and interoperability.
As long as we have different actors, as long as the balance of power is equal, this situation can continue. And the (pretty real) distribution of the network gave us the illusion that it could be forever. Countries and companies, as powerful as they can be, didn’t break this amazing engine yet.
It doesn’t mean that we are blind. Some countries such as the USA and China have a central position, the balance is far from being perfect. And of course, as we discussed earlier, the monopoly position of Microsoft or Google can be a real threat this common tool largely based on open and accessible technologies.
But we are legion.
As long as we use, create, get data on the web, with our various tools and needs, we hopefully will be able to keep this diversity alive. Google is certainly today in a predatory situation, being involved in browsers, OSes, websites and online advertisement, but its attempts to impose radical changes are rarely accepted without lots of critics of the other actors.
We are legion, that’s great. But what can we really do, behind our screens?
Show the Invisible
Against these huge companies, it would be easy to pretend that nothing is possible. But we the people have the power, together. That’s where we get back to the invisible tools everybody use without knowing.
For sure, it’s not possible for everybody to create tools everyone use. But it’s possible to keep these tools alive, by helping those who created them.
Deliberately using these tools is already helping them. As long as these tools exist and are widely used, it will be difficult to make the web evolve to closed technologies. Of course, even with that, a lot of features limited to one browser appear. But this situation with a limited choice of browsers shall not expand to other uses of the web.
That’s because browsers are not the only doors to enter the web that the web is still open. We use APIs, web scrapers, scripts that use the same protocols to read the same formats. Everything waits to be invented, for both tools and uses.
We have to find new uses. We won’t be afraid of thinking outside the box, we’ll go further than expected. New ideas based on current tools give each day more and more power to this diversity that can’t be destroyed.
Using other browsers is also possible, even if the fight seems to be over. Keeping Firefox alive, even with a very low number of users, is the only way to push website creators to test it, and not being blinded by Google’s browser specific "features".
Finally, beyond creating new uses and tools, it’s possible to help what’s already been invented. "Teams" behind tools are often no more than one of two kind volunteers, and supporting them is important to give them the will to continue.
Being a volunteer doesn’t mean refusing money. The best way to sustainably help projects is to give some money to their developers. Code is freely available, but its development has a cost, if only for the development time. A lot of sponsoring solutions exist, don’t hesitate to use them, even for relatively small amounts.
We can do a lot. With our means, with our time, with our capacities, we can each choose the methods we prefer. What’s important is to keep in mind the various treasures we have, and to give them the credit they deserve. Each small step counts.
We are, together, with our differences, the web diversity.