What Is the Open Web?
Over 30 years ago, before the iPhone and Netflix, the Web was introduced as a democratizing force to enable the sharing of information between anyone in the world. Built on free and open technologies, it was like a 'utopian promise to empower the little person'.
The internet has largely been divided into walled gardens. Advocates want to bring the open web back. Tatum Hunter
These days though, deceptive design prevails as walled gardens like Facebook exploit end user data for profit, eroding the philosophy of an Open Web, as called out by the W3C in their vision for a fair and open web:
Ease of gathering personal information spawned business models that mined and sold detailed user behaviors, without people’s awareness or consent.
Despite the term being widely used, there’s still no official definition for Open Web. It appears to be a combination of tech and philosophies that connect society and importantly, put ‘people before profits’ – a web that is safe, empowering, and for everyone.
But how can such an open model be run sustainably? At Prototypr we want to reward our contributors and keep our content accessible and free of invasive ads. What you’ll read here is our working definition of an Open Web and what we want to strive for whilst building an open and sustainable platform. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s our starting point for the experiments we conduct.
The Importance of an Open Web
Mozilla foundation director Mark Surman eloquently sums up the importance of an open web:
An open web is a web by and for all its users, not select gatekeepers or governments. At Mozilla, we compare the open web to a global public resource, like clean water or the environment. The open web is something we all depend on: to communicate and create, to work and play, to buy and sell. And like any other natural resource, it’s fragile. It needs care, because it can be polluted: by harassment and abuse, by misinformation, by bad public policy.
There are multiple, interconnected components that are important to building an open web. Some of them are:
The web is built on open standards and open-source code, so anyone can build software or devices that access, contribute, and link to the web. This was one of the founding principles on which Tim Berners-Lee build the world wide web, when he first invented it in 1990. It’s the reason why huge websites, like Amazon, is build on the same technology and standards as the website of your local school. The open-source principle is a crucial reason for why the web has become so widespread and successful, anyone with an internet connection can access any website.
To keep the web open, websites need to be usable and accessible for all. We should design websites with this in mind. Being able to access the information freely available on the web, is a democratic right, that we should extend to all people, regardless of background, disabilities, language barriers etc. This also means that we’re a fan of open-source UI design conventions and tools because they allow everyone to take part in designing an inclusive web.
On the open web, quality content is easy to find and access. Paywalls should be as low as possible, and you should not have to pay with your personal data to access content. Knowledge is power, and we should make it available to people all over the world, not just those with funds to pay for it.
Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing. - Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.
Making Money on the Web
The vision of the open web is beautiful, but what about content creators who rightfully want to get paid for their work? We still haven’t found a model that works for both content creators and the open web. The web these days feels like a marketplace where you’re constantly hustled and the people who make money are those who can afford the biggest advertisements or yell loudest. We’re not particularly fond of this version of the web, so what can we do to ensure that content creators get paid in a fair way? Let’s start by looking at the problems with some of the current models and then we’ll discuss what the future might hold.
Ok, forgive us if this is a bit of a rant, there are just so many bad things to say about targeted advertising. Targeted advertising and data tracking seem to be the driving force of the web these days. If you’re willing to give up your data and watch some targeted ads, you can access most online content without using your credit card.
Advertising is a way to give both brands, content creators and consumers what they want, but targeted advertising comes with some huge problems. First, there’s the lack of privacy because huge companies like Google and Facebook track everything we do online. Then, there’s the problem of mixing ads, sponsored and free content in a way that purposefully makes it difficult to tell them apart. There’s the incentive to create click-bait and inferior content, and finally there’s the fact that people who wish to manipulate us has very successfully used targeted ads to do so.
Luckily, this is something that policymakers around the world are currently working hard to regulate and we really hope they succeed.
Today the open web is threatened by the dominant technology companies like Facebook, Google and Apple who have an economic interest in creating their own “walled gardens” that they control and monetise.
Sponsorships that are clearly stated, and that doesn’t influence the sponsored content are relatively unproblematic and can be an effective way to keep content open. But often the lines are blurred, and it’s difficult to see where the content begins and sponsor announcements end, which means that the content ultimately becomes biased and less relevant. Plus, when did you ever see an influencer give a sponsored product a negative review? Sponsored content is just not always very objective and honest.
What we like about paywalls is that they’re honest. Someone has created quality content and you must pay to access it. No hidden agendas there. What we dislike about paywalls is that they force us to choose between content providers because we can’t afford a subscription for everything. Instead, we tie ourselves to a few specific content providers. It also potentially excludes people from low-income countries from accessing quality content altogether.
What are the alternatives?
While we’re not big fans of the most prevalent current solutions for content creators to get paid, we’re hopeful that better solutions are on their way and we want to be a part of trying out alternative solutions. Some of the qualities we believe are important for future solutions are:
No artificial engagement: Payment solutions should not incentivize content creators to create click-bait or biased content.
Open-source: Payment solutions should be open-source, so anyone can implement them.
Privacy-first: Payment solutions should not monetize private data, like browsing history.
Transparent: Payment solutions should be transparent, so you know when and how much you’re paying.
Subscription-free: Payment solutions should not require expensive subscriptions to individual web sites.
Fair: Payment solutions should provide a fair compensation to content contributors.
We know our demands are high, and we might not be able to fulfil them anytime soon. At the moment Prototypr is working with the payment solution Web Monetization through a grant from the Grant For the Web project. Web Monetization allows users to stream micropayments to content creators, as they consume their content. Any website can implement Web Monetization and Web Monetization users can pay for content without subscriptions to specific websites.
Web Monetization ticks many of our boxes, but since users only stream a microscopic amount when they consume content, it’s still up in the air whether Web Monetization can create a user base that’s big enough to fairly compensate contributors, especially content providers in niche areas. Since it’s a new technology, Web Monetization also lacks an easy to use ecosystem around the money transferring process. So, there’s still a way to go, but we believe that the best way to get the open web we wish for, is to take part in trying out different solutions.
Want to Learn More?
At Prototypr we want to reward our contributors and keep our content accessible and free of intrusive advertisements. That's why we work with Grant for the Web to experiment with new compensation solutions. We do it because we believe it’s important to keep the web open and fair, not just on Prototypr, but on all websites.
Tim Berners-Lee is credited as the inventor of the world wide web, and he has written about the importance of open standards and neutrality here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/long-live-the-web/
Tim Berners-Lee's History of the web, showing it's early mission and evolution over the years: https://webfoundation.org/about/vision/history-of-the-web/
You can read all of Mark Surman’s definition of the open web here: https://www.yearofopen.org/november-open-perspective-what-is-open-web/what-is-the-open-web-and-why-is-it-important-submitted-by-mark-surman-executive-director-of-the-mozilla-foundation/
Contract for the web is a plan of action to keep the web “safe and empowering” which has support from some of the major online players. You can read about their principles here: https://contractfortheweb.org/
You can read more horror stories about the dangers of targeted advertising in this New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/technology/internet-advertising-business.html
Why Should You Care For The Open Web? - A Drupal Perspective: https://www.srijan.net/resources/why-should-you-care-for-the-open-web-a-drupal-perspective
Russell Brandom talks about the web we left behind, from losing anonymity (thanks to Facebook) to changes in infrastructure: https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/19/16792306/fcc-net-neutrality-open-internet-history-free-speech-anonymity
Similarly, 'The open web (we wish)' talks about the web we left behind: https://www.infolaw.co.uk/newsletter/2019/01/open-web-wish/
What even is the web? Here's a definition: https://www.theverge.com/2017/5/24/15681958/what-is-web-definition
Built in has another excellent article that attempts to define the open web, asking if it's still even possible? https://builtin.com/software-engineering-perspectives/open-web
The Declaration for the Future of the Internet - a document launched by the US, EU, and dozens of other countries: https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/04/28/declaration-future-internet-launched-promote-open-web-all
Find out more about Grant for the Web and Web Monetization here: https://www.grantfortheweb.org/