The Web’s 35th Anniversary

A few days ago, Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the Web) marked its 35th anniversary with an Open letter.

I’m sure Tim is acutely aware of the irony of using a Medium blog post to call to restore the decentralisation to the web.

To the uninititiated, “decentralisation” in this context is similar to having choice when buying groceries, and to what extent. So the decentralisation of our beloved web, and the lack of it, is somewhat of an interesting topic, one which we find ourselves bumping up against here at Cleanfeed.

As well as all our servers, which are distributed around the globe to give the best service in various regions, we are also dependent on the range of web browsers which are available to you. We also use peer-to-peer communication between browsers — a technology which leans on the decentralised nature of the modern web.

Instead of hosting our service in whole on one provider such as AWS, or Google, we use a mix of smaller and larger providers (which, in part, includes AWS for providing DNS). That decision is in some part pragmatic, and some part a point of principle. The pragmatism is to give us control over resilliance and performance, especially important with the various types and grades of media that we’re carrying for our customers. There are plenty of stories of functioning businesses brought to their knees by one simple billing upset.

But the other side of that coin is exactly as Tim highlights by writing on Medium; that the pull towards heavy centralisation is strong. Bucking the trend must often be done as a point of principle, if we agree with Tim and don’t wish the web to be “dominated by the self-interest” of comparitively few large corporations.

I was recently asked about the Cleanfeed home page “why are you missing an EU cookie permissions banner?” familiar for anyone using the web in the EU or UK where these are required by law. It’s simple magic trick we’ve pulled off here: just don’t use cookies on our home page. Or any other ad-tech tracking that involves posting data to large corporations when you access our site. The lure of the pretty charts they provide as a service is strong, but ultimately the decentralised web is more important for everyone.

So where are we not achieving decentralisation? Our own “Medium irony” is to to take a look at the spread of web browsers and what’s needed to confidently support them.

Since 2014 our software has pushed the envelope of the web somewhat at each stage. Straddling somewhere the line between the web being the platform, and the browser being an entire operating system that we build on. You woudn’t expect to run Apple’s GarageBand software on Microsoft Windows, even if your computer was powerful enough, so how many different browsers should Cleanfeed run on? 1, 2… 10? Should some of these be ‘beta’? Should some be ‘certified’ for high-grade use?

So as the W3C specifications (the blueprints used for writing web sites, web pages and web browsers) continues to expand, the task of developing a web browser from scratch becomes itself more and more infeasible. It’s a long time since it was some HTML and images, web pages and web sites (including Cleanfeed) are whole pieces of software consisting of hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

Browser creators are aware of this, too. One-by-one the niche browsers (such as the venerable and long-standing Opera) switching to be based on the same browser engine, the one developed principally for the Chrome browser and largely funded by Google.

And indeed, if we wish to bring features like large-broadcast fully-end-to-end encryption, we really do lean on these browser features. They may not be available in your chosen browser, giving us a pretty stark choice at times between the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ pills.

So Tim is right, the decentralisation of the web is hugely important. The question is, can we (and Tim) practice what we preach?