What’s happening right now at the US border is heartbreaking and inexcusable. We’re donating 25% of all profits today and tomorrow (June 19 & 20) to RAICES, to help reunite detained immigrant parents and children.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
Monday, February 26th, 2018
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.
: seriously, just give me a bloody opt-out from this knock-off web— Alex Russell (@slightlylate) January 14, 2017
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.
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.
Tuesday, October 31st, 2017
JP Rangaswami also examines the rise of the platforms but he’s got some ideas for a more sustainable future:
A part of me wants to evoke Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander when it comes to building sustainable platforms. The platform “community” needs to be cared for and looked after, the living spaces they inhabit need to be designed to last. Multipurpose rather than monoculture, diverse rather than homogeneous . Prior industrial models where entire communities would rely on a single industry need to be learnt from and avoided. We shouldn’t be building the rust belts of the future. We should be looking for the death and life of great platforms, for a pattern language for sustainable platforms.
This is the clickbaitiest of titles, but the post has some good sobering analysis of how much traffic driven by a small handful players. It probably won’t make you feel very cheery about the future.
(For some reason, this article uses all-caps abbreviations for company names, as though a stock ticker started generating hot takes: GOOG, FB, AMZN, etc. It’s a very odd writing style for a human.)
Sunday, October 29th, 2017
The meaning of AMP
But when I hear AMP described as an open, community-led project, it strikes me as incredibly problematic, and more than a little troubling. AMP is, I think, best described as nominally open-source. It’s a corporate-led product initiative built with, and distributed on, open web technologies.
But so what, right? Tom-ay-to, tom-a-to. Well, here’s a pernicious example of where it matters: in a recent announcement of their intent to ship a new addition to HTML, the Google Chrome team cited the mood of the web development community thusly:
Web developers: Positive (AMP team indicated desire to start using the attribute)
If AMP were actually the product of working web developers, this justification would make sense. As it is, we’ve got one team at Google citing the preference of another team at Google but representing it as the will of the people.
This is just one example of AMP’s sneaky marketing where some finely-shaved semantics allows them to appear far more reasonable than they actually are.
At AMP Conf, the Google Search team were at pains to repeat over and over that AMP pages wouldn’t get any preferential treatment in search results …but they appear in a carousel above the search results. Now, if you were to ask any right-thinking person whether they think having their page appear right at the top of a list of search results would be considered preferential treatment, I think they would say hell, yes! This is the only reason why The Guardian, for instance, even have AMP versions of their content—it’s not for the performance benefits (their non-AMP pages are faster); it’s for that prime real estate in the carousel.
The same semantic nit-picking can be found in their defence of caching. See, they’ve even got me calling it caching! It’s hosting. If I click on a search result, and I am taken to page that has a URL beginning with
https://www.google.com/amp/s/... then that page is being hosted on the domain
google.com. That is literally what hosting means. Now, you might argue that the original version was hosted on a different domain, but the version that the user gets sent to is the Google copy. You can call it caching if you like, but you can’t tell me that Google aren’t hosting AMP pages.
That’s a particularly low blow, because it’s such a bait’n’switch. One of the reasons why AMP first appeared to be different to Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News was the promise that you could host your AMP pages yourself. That’s the very reason I first got interested in AMP. But if you actually want the benefits of AMP—appearing in the not-search-results carousel, pre-rendered performance, etc.—then your pages must be hosted by Google.
So, to summarise, here are three statements that Google’s AMP team are currently peddling as being true:
- AMP is a community project, not a Google project.
- AMP pages don’t receive preferential treatment in search results.
- AMP pages are hosted on your own domain.
I don’t think those statements are even truthy, much less true. In fact, if I were looking for the right term to semantically describe any one of those statements, the closest in meaning would be this:
A statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception.
That is the dictionary definition of a lie.
Update: That last part was a bit much. Sorry about that. I know it’s a bit much because The Register got all gloaty about it.
I don’t think the developers working on the AMP format are intentionally deceptive (although they are engaging in some impressive cognitive gymnastics). The AMP ecosystem, on the other hand, that’s another story—the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP pages in the carousel and in search results; that’s messed up.
Still, I would do well to remember that there are well-meaning people working on even the fishiest of projects.
Except for the people working at the shitrag that is The Register.
(The other strong signal that I overstepped the bounds of decency was that this post attracted the pond scum of Hacker News. That’s another place where the “well-meaning people work on even the fishiest of projects” rule definitely doesn’t apply.)
Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Make Twitter Great Again:
Fix Twitter is a browser extension to always show “replying to” in replies and threads along with an option to restore the old-school @-mentions.
Wednesday, April 1st, 2015
100 words 010
- Nobody writes on their own website any more. People write on Twitter, Facebook, and Medium instead. Personal publishing is dead.
- Privacy is dead. The technologies exists to monitor your every movement and track all your communications so it is inevitable that our society will bend to this reality.
These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.
Sunday, September 8th, 2013
I’m at Indie Web Camp and we’re onto the second day, which involves hacking on stuff (the first day involved discussing stuff).
I’ve had my head down attempting to implement webmentions on my site—basically a simpler form of pingback.
This probably won’t work, and this is the first basic step, but if you write a reply to this post on your own site, you should be able to ping me by entering your post’s URL into the form under this post.
Now, this is just a first run so all I’m doing is gathering the pings—I’m not actually going to fetch and parse your post; that step can come later. But if you want to help me kick the tires on this, write something on your site that links to this post and then enter your post’s URL below.
Monday, March 24th, 2008
Quotably offers a nice well-ordered interface onto Twitter conversations.