Creating Technology for Social Change

The Open Web’s Second Chance

Liveblog by: Ali Hashmi @alihashmi01, Whitney, Ed, Willow on vizthink

Participant Names:

  • Seamus Kraft, OpenGov Foundation
  • Mark Surman, Mozilla Foundation
  • Elise Hu, NPR, moderator

Relevant Links:


In search for answers

The purpose of this session is to discuss the “open-web principles” in today’s world. The prospects of a free and open Internet are hardly guaranteed. The open-web principles aim to ensure open, free and public standards on the Internet.  How do we make open web principles relevant for current users and for the two-thirds of the world who will be joining the Internet over the next decade? What sort of design, architecture and governance changes is needed to understand the discourse around open-web principles? These are some of the questions that are part of this discussion today at the 2014 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference.


“Who here is a fan of the Open Internet?” Hands go up, and people cheer. “You’re all weirdos!” John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation at Knight Foundation, tells us.


Bracken introduces the panel to the audience. The panel of this session comprises Seamus Kraft, from OpenGov Foundation, Mark Surman, from Mozilla Foundation, and Elise Hu, from NPR, who is acting as the moderator. The Mozilla project is a global community that is a prominent advocate of the open-web model., on the other hand, “helps public administration become more data-centric, digital, and efficient.”


Hu wants to make this more of a conversation than a typical panel discussion. We will be starting with Surman. Surman, who was “the one punk kid” is his small town in Ontario, shows us his banned 11th grade photo. He was indeed punk rock—and inspired by punk’s DIY ethos. In punk, anyone could grab some glue, paper, and scissors, and make a magazine.  That was revolutionary.


Punk was revolutionary for its times, and it was the DIY ethos that made it revolutionary. That ethos has infused itself in the way we think about the Internet today. How do we build an ethos based on things we believe? To answer these questions, Surman says we must know where we have been, where we are now, and how do we turn it around—because, “right now, we’re losing.”


Surman began by introducing two sub-themes: heroes, and Lego. “The Internet, at its best, is just a big kit of Legos.” He showed clips from the LEGO movie, and described the protagonist who leads the resistance.


Surman, who became director of the Mozilla Foundation five years ago, stated that the Internet he believes in is one “where anyone can make anything, and anyone can share anything with anyone.” On this Internet, anyone can build anything without asking permission. To this end, Mozilla entered the scene as a non-profit in 2003. Even up against the biggest software company in the world, Mozilla still captured 25% of browser share.


The group’s open standard ethos was picked up other companies and groups. Youtube and Gmail would not have been possible without this ethos. Yet despite these victories, companies are still asking whether the open ethos makes sense for them. Surman showed another clip from the Lego movie, and pauses at Kraggle snapshot. “Kraggle”—an old, worn tube of Krazy Glue with some letters obscured—is the villain’s all-powerful weapon. It’s a powerful metaphor: the “Kraggle” is such a threat to Legos because it secures them in place, depriving them of the flexibility, creativity, exploration, and imaginative play that makes Legos so great. For the new generation, the Internet is still an “awesome” place, but Surman sees the Kraggle that threatens it.


Surman brings up the difference between “open” boxes of Lego vs. a construction set. The open box is full of possibilities; the construction site instructs users to build something prescribed and specific. Today, Surman says, “things have moved into the construction set era.” There are a small set of sovereigns who decide how things on the Internet are going to work. Governments are also destroying the ethos of Open Web principles. Companies are also part of the same locus, which is threatening the very idea of net-neutrality.


Surman shows a mobile phone, which is a ubiquitous entity now, and asks us to imagine being confined to a controlled, locked down computing hardware. He thinks that the idea of open internet is under threat, because the new generation is not familiar with that paradigm. He shows movie clip as part of his presentation again. All of you have the ability to alter the way things are, that’s the message of the movie, he says. We are all doing things to protect the open Internet ethos, but we are failing. We have to look at the next generation of people who will understand and protect this ethos of the Internet. But how can we do that?


Hu asks Seamus Kraft how he got from “a college kid chasing girls” to the Executive Director of OpenGov Foundation. His heroes were musicians like Jerry Garcia. Kraft found a community on the Internet that shared Grateful Dead music. “It’s better together,” Kraft said, saying that that’s how he got interested in open Internet principles.  SOPA and PIPA disrupted the whole atmosphere.


Hu says that we are talking in the middle of people who understand this issue and shows a clip from John Oliver’s program on net-neutrality to discuss “branding problem” for the Open Web.Hu asks, if the open Internet has a branding problem?


Kraft thinks we do.  He says it all goes back to getting the show or getting the girl.  We’re focused on how data gets from point A to point B, when most users are only interested in what that data is.

Editor’s Note : This unfortunate use of language was parsed out on Twitter. I talked to Seamus about it today, and we’re going to do a write-up about how this unfolded.

The language of “openness” puts off people because they think that it is not safe. Surman says that we have a strategy and game-plan problem. At Mozilla, they were more active in getting open-web ethos to the public, Surman says. Lets play offense on these issues, instead of just being defensive.


If am a consumer, what difference does it make as to who owns the pipes, Hu asks.


Surman says that brands you love are under threat from the brands you hate, which are using graft to get ahead in competition. Digital literacy is as important as other fundamental areas of education.


Hu asks how important is digital literacy for the policymakers? Seamus says that the element of co-operative, collaborative thinking is needed when we are approaching the issue with policymakers.  Messages got through to more people when we started talking about Justin Bieber instead of the pipes, he says.


Q & A


Waldo Jaquith, a member from audience: I would like to hear about the other side of net-neutrality argument.


Surman says that groups like CWA  have a different philosophy because they come from different times.  He predicts we may have multiple internets in the interest of privacy, which could break the open Internet.


Kraft asks the audience who has had dial up Internet?  Competition brought the price down from the old days of the 600 free minutes AOL CDs, he says.  Right now there is hardly any competition.  


David Ryan, a member from the audience,  asks the question whether “unborn companies” are under threat “if there is no open- source internet”?


Surman says that key piece for driving things forward is to have a level playing field where anyone can build something without asking permission from anyone. Hu intercepts, and asks if our reality is shaped by Google and other content mediators, what difference would it make if we are not aware of  the open Internet realm?


Surman answers that building products that have the values of the Open Web is a step in the right direction. When you build something, there is an expectation that someone else would build upon it iteratively. Kraft talks about Renaissance and the poem “De rerum natura,” which he argues, showed a new world to the people in the Western world. That is what we ought to do, to show people a vision of world which has more “open” normative values.


An audience member asks why people who advocate open web are provincial in their outlook? Why are these people not responsive to points of view that are broad and inclusive? Surman says that open web community is not a one-dimensional entity, it is rather a global community. A global community that is not American brings a more pluralistic approach to this problem, he says.


A speaker from the audience: “Should we start picking where our battles” on the issue of net neutrality? Surman says that he would argue against concentrating resources.  We need to look at everything from encouraging digital literacy on a massive scale to disrupting major operating systems.  Nobody saw Mosaic, or Wikipedia coming.  We can’t predict which battles will be important.


Hu asks about how can we diversify the community? Surman says that Mozilla has persistently worked to ensure diversity in its environment. Seamus, on the other hand says, that his company treats it as a consumer/producer problem. OpenGov treats all different groups as different user-groups.  


Hu asks the question, “what do you think about the business part of this, because making money is important?” Seamus says that making money is important. He says that has to interact with  vendors, who have to guard their interests. We have to partner with them so that there is a win-win situation for both the open-web community and the vendors, he says.


Surman says that the IRS challenged whether protecting the Internet was a charitable act.  He successfully argued that it was.  Going back to sixteenth century, the idea of “common good”  points us to where things should be, he says. We have to think in terms of treating the Internet as a “common good” that needs to protected.