Protect the open web and the promise of the digital age; Much will be lost if fences are put up around our digital open plans

Last updated: March 14, 2014 10:10 pm

Protect the open web and the promise of the digital age

By Richard Waters

Much will be lost if fences are put up around our digital open plans, says Richard Waters

For all the drawbacks, it is not hard to feel nostalgic about the early days of the web. Surfing between slow-loading, badly designed sites on a dial-up internet connection running at 56 kilobits per second could be frustrating. No wonder it was known as the “world wide wait”. But the “wow” factor was high. There was unparalleled access to free news and information, even if some of it was deeply untrustworthy. Then came that first, revelatory search on Google, which untangled the online jumble with almost miraculous speed.

Later, an uproarious outbreak of blogs converted what had been a passive medium into a global rant. And, with YouTube and Facebook, a mass audience found digital self-expression for the first time.

As the world wide web turns 25, it is easy to take all this for granted. For a generation that has grown up digital, it is part of the fabric of life.

It is also easy to turn away without too many qualms. More than 80 per cent of time spent on smartphones and tablets does not involve the web at all: it is whiled away in apps, which offer the instant gratification that comes from a tap or swipe of a finger.

Typing a URL on a small device, trying to stretch or shrink a web page to fit the small screen, browsing through Google links in a mobile browser: it is all starting to seem so, well, anachronistic.

But if the world wide web is coming to play a smaller part in everyday life, the significance of its relative decline should be kept in perspective. After all, the web is only one of the applications that rides on top of the internet: it is the standards and technologies of the internet itself that provide the main foundation for the modern, connected world. As long as all bits flow freely (and cheaply), the promise of the digital age will remain intact.

Before declaring the web era over and moving on, however, it is worth dwelling on what it represents – and what could be lost if this early manifestation of digital life were to be consigned to history.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote the technical paper a quarter of a century ago that laid out the architecture of the web, certainly senses the threat. The open technical standards and open access that lie at the heart of the web – based on the freedom to link any online document to any other – are not guaranteed. What is needed, he argued this week, is nothing less than a digital bill of rights: a statement that would enshrine the ideals on which the medium was founded.

As this suggests, the web has always been much more than a technology. It is a state of mind, a dream of participation, a call to digital freedom that transcends geography. What place it finds in the connected world of tomorrow will help define what it means to be a digital citizen.

Once the online medium entered the mainstream, of course, it was inevitable that it would be reshaped by wider commercial, social and political forces. A set of technical standards dreamt up by an obscure scientific researcher and championed by idealists at the fringes of the technology world was never likely to be given free rein to become the first system to connect humanity.

Business interests have left their mark. A fifth of global advertising already flows over digital networks, with another 2 percentage points a year being sucked in. With so much money at stake, businesses have sought to build walls around the unclaimed land of the web, both to tame the wild landscape and occupy the territory for their own interests.

AOL’s online network, the first of the “walled gardens”, failed to keep internet users corralled: they preferred the open plains of the web. But Apple’s App Store has turned out to be a far more effective attempt at digital enclosure.

Other companies have found different ways to fence off sections of the intellectual commons for private profit. Mobile internet users spend as much time on Facebook’s mobile app as they do on the mobile web. The social network’s private database of more than 1bn people has come, in some ways, to rival the web itself.

It was also unrealistic to think that governments would sit back and allow their powers to be curtailed by a technological movement that has always been tinged with libertarian overtones.

In the name of protecting their citizens, some were quick to turn to online censorship. Nor has it been hard for governments to make the case for taking draconian action to control cyber space: gaping online security holes have left many internet users feeling vulnerable. And companies such as Facebook and Google have hardly helped their case by appearing at times to show little regard for their users’ privacy.

For governments looking to curtail the influence of the web, however, there is now an even stronger excuse for action. The disclosures about widespread internet surveillance by the American and British governments made by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have brought an angry and swift response.

From Europe to Brazil, proposals have been floated to prevent the personal data of citizens from being shipped or stored abroad. Trying to ringfence national networks to block prying eyes may ultimately prove ineffective but that will not stop some countries from trying.

Developments such as this threaten to take some more of the “world wide” out of the web. They would also nudge the online medium a step further towards one possible future: a series of disconnected national or regional networks, connected to each other on terms determined locally.

The web’s inventor sounds at times like he is tilting at windmills as he pushes for a universal recognition of online rights. But it is worth remembering what would be lost if his worst fears were proved right.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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