Call for an Open Stack: Securing an open and competitive information environment for the next decade

[letter to the Open Internet Preservation Society]

The “Stack” of technical layers that have delivered text and video from around the world are now embattled.      An Open Stack encourages competition at each layer, where a closed stack does not.    Unfortunately, the layers of the Internet stack are closing because of business and government interests, but this can be corrected.   Lets fix this.   And as we do, lets give openness some teeth.

Let us call for an “Open Stack” that enforces an open information environment which encourages competition at every layer and prevents closing of any layer.

The fantastic rise of the wired Internet, with personal computers, open source software, World Wide Web, and search engines– led to decades of company formation, new services, access to information, and productivity gains.     This open and competitive environment allowed new entrants to create new services at every level.

Now we are entering into a period that is quite different, a environment of cellular networks, apps, locked down devices, dominant phone companies, walled gardens, and strengthened copyright and patent laws, which means that at every level of the open and competitive landscape of the last couple of decades is under threat.

Let me say that again:

The openness that has been the Internet environment is being locked down and closed which is making competition and new services more difficult or impossible.     If allowed to continue, we will lose the benefits we struggled so hard to build.   Often sold as “secure,” it may well be the opposite.

First the bad news:  Some of approaches we used to secure the open Internet have been undermined, and need to be rethought and renewed.

  • Open source software was protected with the Gnu Public License, but the move to web services from distributed software has made this sharing license structure less impactful.    Efforts to modernize it were compromised.
  • The multi-stakeholder structure of Internet standards, lead by the Internet Society, is threatened to be replaced by a government driven regulatory group called the ITU.     This could lead to more national level firewalls, regulations, and fees.
  • Locked devices that will not even run open source operating systems is being built into personal computers to support the new Windows operating system.
  • Apple’s new personal computer operating system does not allow users to download software from the Internet without finding the magic keystroke to get beyond the prohibition (this is called a “cheat” in the gaming world which indicates how legitimate this feels).
  • Running open source software on Apple cellphones is now called “jail breaking” and voids warranties.
  • Home Internet connection choices have become fewer and fewer over the years in the wired world, and even fewer choices exist in the wireless world.   Now down to 2 or 3 choices in most locales these communications companies can and are starting to favor some services over another based on their own business interests and not the interests of their customers.   Network Neutrality regulations have not been adopted.
  • Content-level monopoly licensing schemes are close at hand, such as the “extended collective license” proposed by the libraries and Google as part of a book scanning project, but was denied by a court as monopolistic.   This approach may be reborn as part of the Digital Public Library of America project working with the US Copyright Office.    This would change the Web’s allowed-until-told-to-take-it-down approach that has made user-created content flower.
  • Bills to enable the copyright industries to take down whole websites because of some offending materials was only stopped by grassroots protests at the last minute.    But new bills are being crafted.
  • Internet telephony and new chat protocols are largely proprietary, unlike email and netnews protocols before them.   Open protocols invite more innovation competition.
  • Cables for iphone5 and some HP network switches have digital rights management features that prevent interoperability and competition.
  • Bittorrent, a protocol that encourages open source implementations, is discriminated against by network providers and prevented from the IPad/IPhone app universe by Apple.
  • Cloud storage and computing vendors are centralizing many services that were originally on leaf-level computers and then moved to central datacenters.   This can be seen as a mall compared to a town square– interactions ruled by contract and private security guards.
  • A competitive and open landscape is not built by accident and does not survive without vigilance and regulation.    While we may understand the importance, we may not see how we must work together to keep the rules fair and open.

Now the better news:  There are many ideas, often in isolation, that might be combined to build an Open Stack.  What if we had…

  • open source operating systems with the R&D budgets of proprietary vendors
  • open cell phones that work over open wireless networks and with open source software
  • wireless networks built on mass participation
  • backhaul conduits that can support dark fiber deployments running fibers for anybody
  • siteless websites that offer services in distributed way as bittorrent is a fileserver without servers
  • data caching, data storage, and computing services based on open standards and inter-operate
  • non-profit competitive infrastructure.  When a technology becomes infrastructure, think of railroads and roads, it is difficult for these to be in private hands because of the difficultly for regulators.   We can try, but maybe infrastructure should be non-commercial and competitive.
  • high-tech non-profits to add to the flowering we have seen over the past 20 years: Wikipedia, Mozilla, EFF, PLoS, Internet Archive, Free Software Foundation, Creative Commons, Linux Foundation, Internet Software Consortium, One Laptop per Child,, Public Knowledge….    Lets use them and build new ones to build an open and competitive infrastructure.

I call on those of us see the benefit of openness and competition to create an “Open Stack”– a complete layer cake of openness: a network to device to application to content system that is open and competitive.       Then lets enforce the openness: lets create systems and regulations to ensure it stays open, because control of any one layer can lead to the closing of the whole system.

Together we can do ensure an Open Stack: software vendors and open source developers, device makers, network operators, creators, publishers, libraries, lawmakers and lawyers.

Together we can build and secure our information technology environment to offer every opportunity to the next generation to shape their world.

4 thoughts on “Call for an Open Stack: Securing an open and competitive information environment for the next decade

  1. raj

    Of the points that you list as necessary for an Open Stack, I think “open cell phones that work over open wireless networks and with open source software” is one of the most important. Mobile Internet usage around the world is continuing to increase, and we are becoming more and more dependent on carriers for access to the Internet.

    Here are several ways carriers are currently restricting their customers:

    1. Carriers require handset manufacturers to ship phones with locked bootloaders, which prevent users from running Open Source operating systems on the phones that they have purchased. When asked about this recently, Verizon said this was to prevent customers from running “unapproved software” or modifying software on their devices.

    2. Carriers require OS vendors to remove software which they do not approve of. Verizon told Google to remove 11 tethering apps from the Android Market. The FCC determined that this violated open access provisions of C-Block spectrum (LTE) and fined them $1.25 million.

    3. Although some open-access provisions are in place for LTE, carriers are finding ways around this, and these provisions don’t protect customers on non-LTE plans. AT&T announced that they are blocking FaceTime calls over their wireless networks unless customers upgrade to a more expensive plan. They claim that open-access provisions do not apply because FaceTime is an app that comes with the phone, not an app that customers download.

    Perhaps open-access provisions could be strengthened to allow customers to run their own open source operating system and software.

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  3. Anarchie Libertaire

    I think the Problem is that capitalism is now colonializing the Internet.

    1000 Years ago the soil in America was owned by noeone but then it became colonialized by the early capitalists from europe. Open Land became private property, so it is now in the information based society. Information, Software, even our thoughts (if we post them on facebook) will become the private property of someone else. Open Information will start to disapear perhaps even being criminalized or made impossible to use it by producing only closed hardware wich does not run free operating systems.

    Non private Property is a thread to property based systems of societies it will be colonialiced and propriatised. In this case we have no choice, no freedom even if the property based system calls itself a “free Democracy”. Thats the dictatorschip of the Capital,

  4. Periboob

    Interesting. Only last week I was thinking about another aspect of unfortunate segmentation–the “app” world. When the Web of information was accessed through web-browsers, there was a good amount of standard required on web-page authors. They had to work at being compatible with the half dozen web browsers which were mostly kept marching to the HTML standard. Therefore, there was a push toward standard information format, all accessed through the user’s browser. If source web sites did not provide links to related information, some external sources would build collections of indices. But now, with apps, large content repositories will be strongly tempted to build little walled gardens of information, accessible only through the content generator’s custom app, where the app is not only required to get to the information, but is not able to leave the app creator’s garden.

    And, of course, carriers (as mentioned above by Raj) will be tempted to conspire to control which apps, and therefore which gardens will will be accessible.

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