Ends and means

The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.

I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?

Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:

Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?

Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”

There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.

Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.

By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.

If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:

We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.

There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.

Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:

The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!

And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!

From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.

Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?

When do the ends justify the means?

Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.

The end-goal here is one I agree with: HTTPS everywhere. On the face of it, the means of reaching that goal seem reasonable. After all, we already require HTTPS for sensitive JavaScript APIs like geolocation or service workers. But the devil is in the details:

Effective immediately, all new features that are web-exposed are to be restricted to secure contexts. Web-exposed means that the feature is observable from a web page or server, whether through JavaScript, CSS, HTTP, media formats, etc. A feature can be anything from an extension of an existing IDL-defined object, a new CSS property, a new HTTP response header, to bigger features such as WebVR.

Emphasis mine.

This is a step too far. Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.

If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.

There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)

No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.

I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.

This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Steve Karsch

Wise words from @adactio: Ends and means “This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.” adactio.com/journal/13498

𝙹𝚘𝚎𝚕

Counterpoint: For normal people, running a web server is already insanely complicated even without https. For those that can’t handle it, there is shared hosting. Requiring https is good and not really an additional burden. adactio.com/journal/13498

Mike Babb

“Ends and means” by @adactio is a balanced and thoughtful piece on corporate power over the web - we shouldn’t cheer giants like Google & Mozilla for imposing their will even on occasions we agree with the end result. When do the ends justify the means? adactio.com/journal/13498

# Posted by Mike Babb on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 at 1:06pm

Alex Magill

Ends and means: adactio.com/journal/13498 from @adactio - “Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried” - I couldn’t agree more. The low barrier to entry frustrates me endlessly, but I wouldn’t be without it (and wouldn’t be here without it)

# Posted by Alex Magill on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 at 3:02pm

James Nash

“Ends and means” - another excellent post by @adactio. This bit in particular resonated with me: “One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood”. Yup!adactio.com/journal/13498

# Posted by James Nash on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 at 6:39pm

Nadreck

Oh, AMP. You (theoretically) mean well, but you’re an ethical swampland. In that vein, some links to share: First, Jeremy Keith has an article, Ends and Means, that is worth reading, and explores both the quagmire that is AMP, and also the well-meaning mess that Mozilla is currently planning regarding locking all new features (including unrelated things like CSS) to only work if you’re on HTTPS.

Second, Chris Coyler over at CSS Tricks wrote a follow-up, AMP News, which is also worth a read (and links to multiple other writers who are discussing this topic).

It’s pretty obvious where I land on this particular topic (I mean, I even co-signed the AMP Letter). I just don’t think paternalistic behavior jives well with a message of an open internet. A real question I think they (and others) should be asking is: is this technology a management-change away from being unethical? If so, maybe you should reconsider.

# Posted by Nadreck on Wednesday, February 28th, 2018 at 6:00pm

A Book Apart

“This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.” Ends and Means, from @adactio: bit.ly/2F3vwdd

# Posted by A Book Apart on Wednesday, February 28th, 2018 at 8:36pm

Matthias Ott

“Requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means. […] This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.” 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏, @adactio adactio.com/journal/13498

# Posted by Matthias Ott on Wednesday, February 28th, 2018 at 8:58pm

Adam Tinworth

Ends and Means Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple. adactio.com/journal/13498

Jay Anderson

There’s so much I want to say about this. But I’m dead tired and fumbling at an iPod. However: Google has been utter shite for websites. Their insistence on dumbed down webpages that “load fast” has killed a lot of what made the web unique. It’s why most media portals now look generic. Cookie cutter websites are not a good thing. Far from it. Forcing AMP on us? No surprise. I’m looking at a major site upgrade as a result of AMP (current version of my theme does not have a custom AMP plugin and the generic ones suck). Worse - I already have a mobile optimized version of my site. Yet between AMP and the fact that Google gives consistently shit scores to my desktop site (mobile site is in the 80s, desktop in the 40s on Page Insights, which is a shitty tool to begin with), I spend more time looking for tweaks to improve speed than focusing on my content. Which is what any website should be focused on! I yearn for the days when Google was the do no evil company. Now, it’s their way or they bury you in the rankings. And their way is the least imaginative way possible. They’re not quite breaking the Internet - they’re just turning it into a sterile white room. Do we need the days of flying toasters back? No. But shockingly this is where Bing gets it right. They pay less attention to speed and more attention to content quality in their search rankings. Also - always question Google’s motives. Their need for blazing fast sites at the cost of quality content is based on the fact that they are the major player in web based advertising via Ad Sense. They fear users closing a window before collecting the ad impressions they covet. Honestly I’m in bed with Google enough (site carried on Google News, running AdSense and SEO being key to our traffic) to despise them.

Mark Rickerby

Riposte to recent talk about killing off ‘View Source’ (which is not unrelated to the AMP situation): “One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood.”adactio.com/journal/13498

Bridget Stewart

Don’t give up hope. There have been several inflections on points for the web before…and things worked out pretty well. These smart folks advocating as they do is how it comes to pass. Join them. Be one of the (collective) voices of reason that issues in positive change.

James Finley

As someone with unpopular beliefs, this strikes home. “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”adactio.com/journal/13498

tams sokari

“Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.” - adactio.com/journal/13498

Eric Eggert

In Sunday Seven I publish a list of seven links to things on the internet. The only criteria to make it in this category is that it is interesting to me.

  • Accessibility: Apple Park’s Visitor Center by twitter user @xarph – An interesting twitter thread about the many small details build for accessibility.1 (If you enjoy twitter threads as much as I do2, read the whole thread as one article on “Thread reader”.)
  • AMP: “Ends and Means” by Jeremy Keith – Insightful post by Jeremy on how companies can act together to help good and how sometimes they go a step too far. To use new CSS properties in Firefox, websites need to support HTTPS before those are available to them. This behavior creates a whole layer of CSS that is harder to be used while learning.

  • Accessibility: “WAI-ARIA Screen Reader Compatibility” – An overview of ARIA support which is good, but there are always edge-cases. It also shows the tests used to determine support, so if you want to get an impression on how different ARIA roles or attributes are voiced, you can look it up here.3

  • Layout: “Layout Land” by Jen Simmons – Lots and lots of short videos that describe how to create different layouts with the new capabilities in CSS & Browsers.

  • TV: “The Tick” (Amazon Originals) – Sometimes, especially while coding, I need to distract parts of my brain while working. The Tick is funny and not hard to follow. I enjoyed it.

  • Podcast: Game Show by The Incomparable – I’m late picking up this particular podcast because I dismissed the idea that game shows as podcasts could work. Boy, was I wrong! I love “Random Pursuit,” “Inconceivable,” “Low Definition,” and the text adventures and they had me spontaneously laughing out loud several times in the last few weeks.

  • Action: #WHOagainstGuns – Over 40 Doctor Who podcasters are supporting actions for gun control in the U.S. and plan to produce an exclusive series of commentary podcasts for the classic story “The War Games.” Access to those unique recordings will be only available to donors. More info, including a list of possible organizations to donate to, is available on the Reality Bomb website.

  1. I don’t necessarily agree with the marking of the AED which should arguably be easier to find, but all in all, it is a testament that accessibility does not need to look ugly. 

  2. Which means “not very much.” 
  3. Beware: As those test cases are there for testing ARIA attributes the code might not be an example of a best practice but of a possibility. 

Kettwig, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany8°C

Blended Ventures

What does it mean when Google says use my format and you’ll get a preferential treatment or when Mozilla says any new web features they add will require HTTPS? It sounds great and the end result is desirable but at what cost? adactio.com/journal/13498

Tech Liminal

Is the preferential treatment of Google-hosted #AMP-formatted pages a “carrot,” or an abuse of power? A write up on Google’s monopoly. “But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.” #webdev adactio.com/journal/13498

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