Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Get Off the Web

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 28, 2002

For the last week or so I have engaged in a running argument with journalism professor Eric Meyer and some others on the online-news mailing list about a variety of issues mostly related to deep linking. I've been sick these past two weeks, so this dispute has been good for me: some off-the-cuff writing with an axe to grind and forum in which to vent a little.

I thought a few times about whether to post these thoughts to my own site. They're a little controversial, and as a government employee I now have to be at least a bit responsible. The thoughts are a little bit scattered, though the careful reader will easily find the theme and the thread of argumentation.

In the end I decided to post these thoughts out of a spirit of journalistic honesty. I report daily on the e-learning world and people have come to read and even trust my reports. It's important that people understand where my biases lie. That they understand what I really think about some of these issues.

I don't expect to convert people who won't be converted nor to change the world with a thought. The purpose of these words is to describe and explain what I think, nothing more. And while I probably don't need to say this, I ought to state that the opinions expressed in this article are almost certainly not those of my employer.

From: Robert Spears [] What is so "stupid" about having a linking policy? At a minimum, NPR would hold a stronger legal position against another site that created a linking relationship of which NPR did not approve.

If NPR had invented the TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML and all the other publicly accessible software and protocols they employ to post a web site, then they might have cause to complain. But they didn't. They're quite happy to take the free ride, but now they also want to dictate the terms.

If NPR doesn't want unauthorized linking, then let it use some other set of protocols. It doesn't have to use TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML. It could very easily create client applications and proprietary protocols that would give it all the rights it desires. Nobody is stopping them from doing this. On the contrary, I am positively encouraging them to do this. You don't like the way the web works? Get off the web!

I know, I know... deep-linking policies are "SOOOO NOT what the Internet is about". When it comes to certain webloggers, I think the Internet is about a group of attention-seeking "infophiles" having free reign over a universe of free, but costly-to-produce, content. ("We are SOOO enlightened..."; "Give us LINKING or give us death!!!"; etc.; etc.).

Nobody asked any of you to spend all that money creating content for the web. Indeed, as I recall, when the commerical world discovered the internet in the mid 90s, there was actually a considerable number of voices arguing that they should be prohibited. From the point of view of many internet users, the commercial websites are the interlopers. Certainly they are the late arrivals. There was content, a lot of content, on the web long before the gleam of the first business plan for a commercial web content play.

If you don't like the internet the way it was designed and the way it was built, if you just can't earn the sort of return you want for your costly-to-produce content, get off the web! Take your snide remarks about webloggers and free content and build your own network. You don't even need to install new hardware: the existing infrastructure will do just fine, you can deliver your services over existing modems. Sure, you would have to write new client and server applications, but these are pretty simple and you can write them with your desired business rules built into them.

Nobody guaranteed you a return on your costly-to-produce content. A lot of people advised you not to do it. But you did it anyways and now you are whining to high heaven about how unfair this whole thing is. You are like somebody who devised a business plan to charge for water in a lake, and are now complaining about all the people who have come to expect access to free water.

"If" only this altruistic attitude could be adopted by corporations, so that all competitive trade secrets could be set free for the "betterment" of society. Meanwhile, the perceived economic value of online content (and services) is a big fat zero in the eyes of too many advertisers and consumers.

We don't care whether corporations are altruistic or not, and most of us are experienced enough to expect altruism as the last thing to be displayed by a corporation. Keep your trade secrets; we don't care. That said, we are altruistic and we share our 'secrets'. The internet was designed in order to foster these values, and it became an environment where people could be altruistic and could share. That's how the software was designed. That's how the protocols were designed.

You can be as mean spirited and close fisted as you want, but what you are doing here is walking into an environment designed for the specific purpose of fostering the free exchange of information and demanding that altruism be declared morally deficient, sharing be declared a crime. If the perceived value of online content is a big fat zero, then take your business plans and get off the web!

And, boy, isn't Major League Baseball "dumb" to ALWAYS interrupt its broadcast with the "expressed written permission" sermon??? If they are going to publicly broadcast their games, I guess they should expect that their property will be used and abused by others as they see fit?

Well... Yeah. Some person with a television and antenna might pick up the broadcast (I assume some channels still broadcast over the airwaves) and watch the game without paying MLB. And they might even have the audacity to go to the bathrom between innings. We already know that at least some CNN executives thing that this is a crime. But worse yet, they might actually describe the game to a friend, or relay the score in a telephone conversation, without "expressed written permission" of MLB.

The fact is, MLB can broadcast the warning all they want, but they are meaningless once the information gets into a space - such as a conversational space, or a telephone space - where sharing and free exchange of information is the dominant mode. Of course, the purpose of MLB's warning is to prevent commercial enterprises from rebroadcasting the games. They can do this in a controlled non-sharing environment like television.

Major League Baseball, notice, is not broadcast on the web. Perhaps they're not so dumb after all.

Why do webloggers get soooo upset about efforts to manage deep-linking (i.e. when others try to protect their online assets)???

There is an easy and dead simple way of protecting your assets: take them off the web. Distribute them, if you must, using some other technology. Please!

Perhaps, it is because their 15-minutes of fame become threatened in an environment where they are able to freely and easily benefit from the work of others. (I know... they bring "customers" to other sites, even though these "customers" often ignore online ads. And, on and on, the game continues...). No matter that blogs and aggregation sites will have the long-term effects of turning destination sites into one-dimensional commodities with waning customer loyalty.

The people who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame are almost invariably the commerical enterprises that sold Wall Street fundamentally flawed business plans but found they could not prosper in the existing environment they tried to occupy, an environment where people are freely and easily able to benefit from the work of others. It turns out that the business model was based on the scarcity and inherent value of information, but on the web, as it was designed and built, information is not scarce and therefore not inherently expensive.

The existence and proliferation of Usenet long before the commercial content sites ever tried to occupy this public space is proof that there would be content, and therefore webloggers, with or without the commercial information providers.

On the web, "customer loyalty" is earned by having something worthwhile to say, not enforced by enacting increasingly repressive legislation.

And of course, "if they don't want people linking, then use technology". Then when technology is prevalently used to control access to hard-earned content, perhaps hackers will join the "fight" and provide "liberating" technology to bypass the shackles of gated-access. Then we can enter another technological spy-vs-spy battle - "if they don't want people to link, then they shouldn't use INFERIOR technology"...

If you enter what was a free and common space and arbitrarily declare that this part of the space is "your" and that people shall henceforth obey your new rules, you have to expect people to ignore you. If you insist on building walls in what was previously a free and common space, then you have to expect people to set about circumventing or even tearing down your walls. Again, if you don't want people deep linking into your material, get it off the web!

As far a "public relations nightmare", who cares at this point? Who is complaining? An audience that has little respect for the mountains of content and services provided for free on a 24/7/365 basis? Or perhaps it is just the webloggers, who are concerned that their wells of limitless "natural online resources" are beginning to dry up?

I am one of the people you hate so much. I am one of the people who has what you call "little respect" for the mojntains of content. But it hardly comes to me for free. Over the years I have spent thousands of dollars on computer equipment and connectivity. I have also contributed hundreds of articles to the common pool of web content. Numerous websites. Tens of thousands of email messages. Hundreds of MUD roms, monsters and other objects. Numerous scripts in various languages. HTML code. Advice. And a couple of Usenet posts (I was never a Usenet person). I have devoted the better part of my creative life to the internet and to the web, and never once did I demand that someone pay me to access any of my materials.

You have a very strange sense of "free".

But hey. You can have your "cash-only" version of the internet if you want. It would cost very little to develop the relevant software to get it off the ground. You can build in all the restrictions and rules and cash tranactions you want. Hey, you could even give it a trademarked name (like, say, Compuserve or Genie, or whatever). You could make sure that everybody paid for every bit of information and content they retrieved from your network. Nothing is stopping you.

But, of course, you would still fail. Because people would not buy your software, or even use it for free, if it meant entering an environment where everything costs money and where altruism and sharing are prohibited. Some people might miss your costly and hard-earned content, but mostly, life would go on. There are two billion pages on the web; your hundred or so would be missed about as much as a teaspoon of water from the ocean.

This is the deep irony of your position. You cannot sell your content unless you have an audience. But the audience flows to places where altruism and sharing and encouraged. But where altruism and sharing are encouraged, your content has no value. You have to put an end to ltruism and sharing. Which, of course, is the point of your present post.


One of two things will happen:

Either you will be unsuccessful, the web will continue to be a place where information is freely shared and linked, and you and your ilk will devise business plans based on providing services rather than building walls,


You will be successful and shut down the free web, turning it into a cash-only environment. In which case, an alternative network with alternative software and alternative protocols will be the place where the people flow, a new and open information commons, a place where once again people can freely share information. And a place, I might add, where you and your ilk would never ever be welcomed.

Because, in the end, what you want is what you can't have. You want to control the way people communicate with each other by asserting that your voice is a special voice with rights and privileges that must be respected. That was possible in an era of restricted channels of communication. But the genie is out of the bottle. It turns out that communications channels are very easy to create. And it turns out that communications are very hard to control.

Eric Meyer's main point in this email is to suggest that Just as NPR wants the context of how it published its stories to remain clear, a researcher would never stand still for having isolated fragments of his or her data be used by someone else who had intentionally been blinded to the totality of the original research report. And hence, seep linking to this report would be wrong.

Eric Meyer advances a number of half-truths about scientific research in order to score some cheap points in the current debate. It won't wash.

According to Meyer, "you must regard the entire research as an inseparable whole." Moreover, "You never mine for data. You always test specific hypotheses, arising out of the conclusions of previous research."

In some cases, what Meyer says is true, but only in specific contexts. As a general principle for research, this principle would fail utterly. Much productive research is obtained by looking directly at another researcher's data without particular regard to the hypotheses that led the researcher to collect this data.

Probably the most famous case of this is Johannes Kepler's discovery of the laws of planetary motion. Kepler relied to a large degree on decades of astronomical observations conducted by Tycho Brahe. Were the Nobel prize in existence then, he would most certainly have won the award.

It is also worth noting in this context that Isaac Newton drew upon Kepler's work in much the same fashion, exactly the fashion as described by Vin Crosbie. Newton, probably, would also have won the Nobel prize.

Reference to original data is commonplace in contemporary research as well. Probably the most familiar instance of this is the use of meteorlogical information by climate scientists. The observations of temperature, humidity, rainfall and more have value independently of any theory, which is a good thing, because otherwise we would not be able to construct climactic models.

In addition to reporting those hypotheses and your data findings, you must document the theoretical framework behind the experiment (a lit review) and provide a full discussion of the limits that you may need to impose on interpreting that data (a conclusion) because of the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which the information was gathered (a methodology segment).

In some cases, these additional steps are required, in others they are not. It depends on the research being conducted. More often the most important discussion centers around the construction of the experiment or observation: what counts as an 'oil drop' for example, what counts as a 'positive vote'. The purpose of this documentation is to allow the raw results to be used and interpreted outside the constraints of the original experiment and not, as Meyer suggests, to limit use of the data to appropriate contexts.

Meyer reports that research is conducted by postulating and then testing a hypothesis. Though this is part of research, it is only a part. A large bulk of research is devoted to replicating previous research (in which case a direct comparison of data is essential). Some research is conducted by aggregating the results of previous experiments; again, the data points should be employed directly rather than as interpreted through a theoretical perspective. A great deal of research doesn't involve measuring for data at all, except in an incidental way. Mathematical research is perhaps the most pure example of this, though examples may be observed in domains as disparate as linguistics, psychology and philosophy.

Data isolated from the context of these other elements is totally valueless and would lead to potentially erroneous use.

In the sphere of research, "erroneous" is almost always in the eye of the beholder. But in any event, this statement is false: the weather reporter's assertion that it is currently 24 degrees is of use to me even if abstracted from the reporters comprehensive theory about a storm front moving in toward the eastern seaboard.

Just as NPR wants the context of how it published its stories to remain clear, a researcher would never stand still for having isolated fragments of his or her data be used by someone else who had intentionally been blinded to the totality of the original research report.

This completely misrepresents the level of control a research has over the use of published research. If a writer wishes to find and use one isolated data element published in a report in Nature, for example, and if the writer wants to use it in such a way that ignores or even refutes the original researcher's theoretical framework, there is not one whit that the original researcher can do except to complain that the writer has advanced a number of half-truths about scientific research in order to score some cheap points in the current debate.

I have no idea where Eric Meyer comes up with this stuff.

If courtesy isn't enough of a reason, there also could be some liability if an unapproved link caused what amounts to a denial of service for other things on a targeted server.

The potential for liability presupposes some legal requirement in the first place. Since you are not required to reques permission to link, you are not liable for having failed to request permission. In the trades we call Meyer's argument a case of "begging the question."

To illustrate: an analogy. If I wrote an article in my newspaper about an important hockey game, am I liable for the resulting traffic jam around the arena? Of course not.

If I say on my morning radio show that it's a beautiful day to head down to the beach, am I liable if a person tries and fails, because of the crowds, to find a place to suntan? Of course not.

When the mass of people head for something known to be a popular destination, whether online or off, they assume the risk that they will be unsuccessful in gaining access. When a person or agency makes available something that would, if it became known, a popular attraction, they assume the risk that they will be unable to accomodate the crowds.

Staci D. Kramer wrote,

By blocking ads you are harming their ability to make money, which eventually may make those sites inaccessible to you when they either shut down or close off content for non-paying users, but you are not trying to make money by using their sites as backdrops for advertising.

The argument could be made that you or other individuals are violating copyright by altering the context of a site's content. I think the case against Gator as a commercial concern trying to usurp others' work for profit is a lot more worthwhile.

By that logic, a case could be made for taking Microsoft or AOL to court. Both allow users to limit cookies, turn off Java and Javascript, and even to surf without images. All of these harm the companies' ability to make money, and all of these are in the same way "altering the content of the site's content."

Moreover, a similar case could be made against users or software companies that take steps to prevent embedded applications from launching. Your refusal to load a web site's spyware constitutes a denial of their ability to make money and is an altering the context of the site's content. After all, the whole purpose of some of these sites is to get you to load their software, amke them your home page, or whatever.

It comes back to the question of how the web was designed. The server sends the client a stream of data. The client does what it wishes with that stream of data. If it chooses to ignore some of the bits that come its way, that's its choice. Just as it's your choice to hit 'mute' when a television commercial comes on, to spin the radio dial when you get tired of the daily talk radio, or to look the other way when confronted with a salesperson. Any alteration of that principle fundamentally changes the nature of communications in a way I don't think we're prepared to accept.

Responding to a longish post by Eric Meyer:

I would be more impressed with Eric Meyer's 'wild frontier' example were it not previously used in Cantor and Segal's book to justify the Green Card lottery spam, arguably the first case of spam on the internet. If this is civilization, give me the wilderness. Moreover, I refuse to accept the contention that an enviornment where altruism and sharing are the norm is somehow uncivilized, and that progress is defined by greed and hoarding. Yes, that is how the history of the American frontier evolved, for better or worse. But there are significant differences between a virtual landscape and a western one.

Cyberspace, unlike the American frontier, is genuinely limitless. There is no upper limit to the number of web pages that can be created, the amount of information that can be exchanged. There is no consumption in a virtual environment: a resource, one used, may be used again and again. While the American frontier was "tamed" because of actual shortages created by the rush of settlers, the only shortages that exist on the internet are artificial shortages created by those seeking to create artifically high profit margins.

Those among us who are more hopeful than Meyer see in the web the potential for the evolution of a society rather more civilized that Meyer's civilization, a society where we can do without range wars, trails of tears, robber barons, dust bowls and mass migrations. If one views knowledge and information as wealth, then the internet is an environment where everyone can be wealthy, where one person's gain does not entail another person's loss. But if one views wealth through the limited perspective of accumulating money, then you can become wealthy on the internet only by hurting others, since there is a limited supply of money.

Things like money, fences, claims, property: these concepts have no meaning in an environment where there is no scarcity. That's probably why Eric's ministrations seem so contrived to me. Why would you charge money for information that flows from the air like an endless rain? Why would you restrict access to content that could be as easy obtained from a hundred different sources? Why would you enforce a copyright over an idea that occurs to a hundred, to a thousand, people simultaneously?

The economic models and economics developed and nurtured by economists from Smith to today all depend on an environment of scarcity. When business plans are developed, they almost invariably incorporate assumptions from these economic foundations. But the internet is not an environment of scarcity. Quite the contrary: any scarcity that may exist must be manufactured, imported into the ether from the physical world. And as I have suggested before, even such contrivances create nothing more than the illusion of scarcity. If you fence in the internet and charge admission to your space, people will simply pull up stakes and move. The internet has no boundaries, no edge, no limit.

In order to understand the nature of civilization in an environment of abundance, you must begin with the premise that the contents of that environment - information, bandwidth, web space - have little or no value. Negligible value. This is so because these contents are limitless. If this is so, then possession does not engender wealth. You cannot become rich by accumulating or hoarding content on the internet. The only way you can generate wealth, then, is to use this content to provide a service. The new wealthy of the internet economy will not be the ones who own the most things, but those who provide the most services to the most people.

OK, now I'll fess up.

What really prompted me to post this today was yet another CISTI alert. CISTI is the NRC's internal library. It provides access to pretty well everything written or available online in the field. It is a tremendous resource.

Unfortunately, much of it costs money to use. Not personally, of course. Like many corporations and universities, the NRC pays money to access these online databases (or to get reprint rights where electronic distribution is prohibited).

So anyhow, there's this notice about a new issue of Journal of Educational Technology (or something like that). An article that looks to be work reading is in the list. Maybe this is one of the free ones, I think to myself as I follow the link.

Now I keep my passwords and proxies turned off so that I don't mindlessly access paid resources - that way I don't accidentally send blocked content to newsletter readers. So I bumped up against the password screen and the demand for $US 30 before I could read the article.

That's where I lost it. $US 30 for an article I might spend five or ten minutes reading. One of dozens of articles I might read in a day. I could easily bankrupt the Canadian government with a few week's worth of unrestrained research.

And moreover, the posted price has utterly nothing to do with the cost of producing and mounting the article. The author was paid nothing, the reviewer was paid nothing, the space on the web server costs about a dime and the cost of the bandwidth to send it to me even less. Yet if a thousand people read this article - fewer people than who visit my website in a day - the publisher would take home $US 30,000. For an article they didn't even pay for!

This is a crime. Our government spends hundreds of millions of dollars funding professors who conduct research for publication. And now we have to turn around and pay through the teeth in order to read the results?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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