A game with many winners? A Conversation with Brewster Kahle

October 7, 2021

Open Future Session #1

What is the value of openness, twenty years since key ways of doing things in the open were established? Where are we going and is Open fit to meet the challenges of today’s internet, and modern digital societies? How can we imagine a new Open?

These are the questions that drive our work at Open Future. And in order to answer some of them, we are running the Open Future Sessions - meetings of thought leaders in the broad Open Movement. During each session, we invite a guest to share with us their ideas about openness, challenges that we face and ways of overcoming them.

Our first guest was Brewster Kahle, the Founderand Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive. Turning 25 this year, the Archive is a key piece of the open web infrastructure and a living proof of how to change the world by doing things openly.

Setting the rules of the Open Internet game

Brewster created the Internet Archive in 1996. He started “collecting the Web” to establish a norm that online content needs to be archived. It was a way of establishing new things not by policy, but by doing. He believed that the internet can be used to make the world smarter, by connecting people with information.

He saw people like him as “game masters” - interested in defining the rules of a game in such a way that many people can win: that as many people as possible can benefit from using digital technologies. An approach that was characteristic of people believing that we can change the world with technology, and very different from those who just “play to win”: those who wanted to make money using the internet.

The Library is (still) a great metaphor for the Open Internet

In his talk, Brewester kept returning to libraries - as the original knowledge institutions, as templates for visionary projects like Memex and Xanadu and as metaphors that are still relevant today. By thinking about libraries and how they work, we can orient our current work and establish a vision for a better internet.

One example that Brewster gave is that of webpages. Libraries traditionally collect and share books. And similarly, the Internet Archive was collecting a web made of pages - very different from today’s internet made up of feeds. These, unlike pages, are usually not open, and cannot thus be easily shared, archived, connected.

At the same time, the Internet Archive pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a library. Brewster explained how, by introducing video transcriptions and OCR technology, they are making its content searchable at scale, also using automated tools or machine learning. He describes it as creating a macroscope that gives a view of the knowledge ecosystem as a whole. Something that a library can do as part of its mission to share knowledge but is almost impossible to do through commercial approaches.

Open knowledge against disinformation

The Archive’s work on fighting disinformation illustrates how Brewster translates the vision of a digital library into practice. “Turn Wikipedia References Blue” is a project that was sparked by his conversation with Katherine Maher, former CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation. Katherine mentioned that Wikimedia runs the risk of “truth becoming fractured”, with editors no longer being able to converge on one shared version of an article. The reason for this is that many references are not easily available, blocked by copyright and hidden behind paywalls. And as a result editors on Wikipedia link to sources that are more easily available - and disinformation is often the most accessible type of information.

The Internet Archive has therefore committed to making available all the sources cited in Wikimedia, “turning the reference links blue” (Wikimedia turns links red if they are needed, but do not point to any content). This is a project that is characteristic of Brewster’s approach, which aims at defining the shape of shared, knowledge infrastructures for the web. It also shows that the debate about access to knowledge is directly relevant to current conversations about a healthy internet.

Digital ownership and the future of libraries

The issue of being able to own knowledge or content is for Brewster fundamental - and this is where he is critical about the achievements of the Open Movement. Much as he appreciates the change caused by Creative Commons and other open content initiatives, he notes that they did not “sweep the field”: change the structure of the internet (the way open source software did, in his opinion). Mainstream knowledge and culture is still copyrighted - and the current fight should not deal with opening these resources, but with making sure that they can be owned.

Work on digital ownership is again directly tied to libraries - which increasingly cannot own and share digital resources in the same way that they own and share books. The preferred way of providing access to digital content - by licensing it instead of selling, by providing streams and feeds instead of files - makes libraries unable to do their work. They run the risk of our societies becoming dependent on publishers and their for-profit modes of providing access to culture. And libraries, in such a scenario, can no longer fulfil their mission.

As surprising as it might sound coming from an advocate of openness, Brewster sees the right to buy things as one of the core fights that open advocates should focus on.

The Decentralized Web

In 2015, Brewster set up the group: Let’s build a different web!, which has been proposing an alternative internet structure. The structure they imagined is decentralized - very different from the way the internet was shaped by then, but also going back to original designs of the web. This relates to openness, but focuses on the need for content to live in multiple places (copyright is just one of factors that make this possible).

Decentralization is what makes culture resilient - when centralised, knowledge can be changed or lost too easily. And again, the inspiration from how libraries work is obvious - while the publishing market has a tendency to centralise (like most sectors of the current economy) - libraries remain a decentralized system.

The Internet Archive is exploring how it can itself become decentralised, and how such architecture of knowledge provides new benefits. The foundation is putting its archival content on the decentralised web using the InterPlanetary File System network and is actively exploring how this allows new ways of using web content - for instance archiving working websites and not just their snapshots.

Escaping from the App World

Brewster defines the current moment as very different from the time when he launched the Internet Archive. While in the 1990s the internet felt like an opportunity for a better society, today we are in the middle of the techlash. The dominant platforms are responsible for turning open pages into closed feeds and we risk living in an “App World” that is opposite to Brewster’s vision of an open, decentralised internet.

And he strongly believes that we need, more than ever, people and organisations that want to be “game masters of the internet”, who design the web to be a game with many winners, and a space where everyone can have access, and voice. He also sees the need for policy and advocacy organisations that speak directly about access to knowledge, challenges with copyright, and the need for digital, public infrastructures.

And as he speaks about the goals for the open movement in the 21st century, and of ways of continuing the work started 20 years ago by initiatives like the Internet Archive, Wikimedia or Creative Commons, one thing is completely clear: that the vision of a digital library, that was foundational for Brewster 25 years ago, still offers a powerful template for imagining an internet that makes the world smarter, but is also democratic, healthy and just.

Open Internet needs to bring value to creators

In reaction to Brewster’s talk, Paul Keller stressed the importance of better understanding the role of creators in the shared knowledge and culture ecosystem. According to him it is increasingly crucial to take the ability of creators to benefit from their contributions to the commons into account when designing the rules of the game.

He highlighted the fact that publishers have both a very problematic effect on the ecosystem that severely limits our ability to access information yet at the same time publishers play a crucial role in funding creators. This is a role of these intermediaries that the open movement has traditionally ignored (In its early years Creative Commons has encouraged creators to simply “skip the intermediaries” without providing any alternative ways of capturing economic value).

It follows from this that the Open Movement needs to pay more attention to value creation. As we create new governance structures for knowledge, the Open Movement also needs to address the question of fair remuneration for the creators that contribute to this ecosystem. There is an opportunity that is not fulfilled either by the publishers with their traditional publishing models, but also not by online platforms - the new intermediaries. New infrastructures for open knowledge, as described by Brewster, should also redistribute value to creators, in a direct and egalitarian way.