The open Internet of the future needs more commercial innovation today

Ethan Zuckerman led a panel with Emily Bell, Jillian York and Nathan Freitas at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference last week discussing a range of issues around the future of the Open Internet.

Emily talked about the authoritative position the leaders of the big Silicon Valley dotcoms are in and the lack of checks and balances they are held to. They can be very self-serving and sometimes just naive when it comes to free speech, owning our identities, and other human rights.

It isn’t a doomsday scenario, as there are many wonderful examples of the open Internet enabling a much more accessible and engaged civic dialog in the world. Marco Civil, TurboVote, and Promise Tracker are some of the more recent ones, to name a few.

But Emily is right that too much power is in the hands of too few. We gave them that power, and they developed incentives for us to keep giving it to them. Now their financial position gives them the ability to control even more aspects of the digital world if and when they want to.

There are political remedies to the centralization of authority that may end up just happening as they tend to do when commercial superpowers exercise too much control over large enough markets.

We must be careful what we ask for, however. Stifling technological innovation through regulation can turn into a costly and even self-destructive game of whack-a-mole.

Yet the market is failing to solve this problem organically.

Let’s be honest here — What incentives are offered to new companies by the open Internet? Do those things make a young business more successful than the alternatives, or will the privately-owned digital markets like the Apple bundled stack make it impossible for the open Internet or any public good to compete? Are the creators and custodians of the key industry standards driving the open Internet failing to embrace changes fast enough?

The macro implications are serious as Sir Tim Berners Lee said in a recent plea to protect the open Internet:

“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

But much of that is meaningless to the average entrepreneur trying to make it big or to the average end-user who just wants things to work.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the first step in this recovery is that anyone interested in a publicly-owned open Internet needs to look closely at the next gen entrepreneurs. Protecting the future requires a focus on the commercially-centered standards and issues, fighting for the ones that protect the open Internet and challenging the ones that will kill it. Celebrate organizations today that are both fueling open principles and making money in ways that demonstrate the values future custodians of this space will be proud to fight for.

For example, how can cybercurrencies be used to strengthen the open Internet? And what role does DRM play in the open Internet, or is it purely a threat?

Legislation is a critical battleground, but entrepreneurs care about money. And as the saying goes, when money walks out the door love flies out the window.

If the open Internet isn’t the best way to achieve the things people want to achieve then it is destined to be merely a servant of the path that is.

The Network is the News

A long time ago in Internet years there was a Silicon Valley super power called Sun Microsystems.  Their slogan was ‘The Network is the Computer’, a clever aspirational statement challenging the centralized power of mainframe computers.

It wasn’t long before that vision became reality, and the Internet grew into something much more powerful than a network that computes.  The idea became more of a principle of technology today rather than something any company could own.

Many variations on this theme have surfaced and resurfaced over the years, and yet it still feels like a fresh idea with a lot of unexplored territory.

Journalism, for example, is not often enough a networked activity.

An opportunity to try something that might function as if journalism were a network arose recently when my colleague Sean Clarke was looking for some help identifying a tool he needed for a special project.  Is there a better solution than Google Docs for collecting, analyzing and rendering structured input from users?

Of course the answer must be ‘yes’, but which one?

Around the same time, Knight’s next News Challenge was announced, a very appealing high level question about making the Internet stronger.  Maybe Sean’s need was something we could answer for everyone with a new open data platform.  Ideas are cheap, though, and we needed a team to work on this very unformed idea.

Guardian architect Graham Tackley is the creator of the company’s realtime analytics platform, an incredible tool that makes analytics work for editors in a way analytics tools have traditionally failed to understand.  He was eager to look at the realtime aspects of a project like this and how you can platformize it to serve many different users and use cases.

Also agreeing to join the project was Tom Armitage, a sort of mercenary artist whose canvas is code.  I met him at our first hack day at the Guardian a few years ago, and he supported the Contributoria team in its early phases.  He had some ideas about structured participation that he could tease out with this project.

I’m very interested in journalism platforms and, in particular, ways to make journalism work in a more network-y kind of way as opposed to a broadcast-y kind of way.  In my mind journalism is not yet fully embracing the power of the Internet as a network.

Yes, media companies are now very good at manipulating network behaviour to reach the masses, but very few are effectively using the two-way, linked node architecture of the Internet software and hardware stack.  And, of course, using raw data and user participation as the ingredients for networked journalism is something that needs much more exploration still.

As Susan Crawford said in her opening keynote at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference announcing the funding for our project, among others, “data can provide a level of factual persuasion that storytelling isn’t always capable of doing.”

We’ve called this project Swarmize.

It’s going to stay very small for now while we figure out precisely what it is and apply it to one or two specific use cases.  My hope is that it sets the stage for something very potent as we’re able to collectively generate insight across the network, that ultimately the network becomes the journalism.