Can you explain what the semantic web is? How “free” is today’s internet? How is it compromised?
I've been asked by BBC Bitesize to answer some questions before an audio interview that may feature on some new content they're producing. This is the first question they asked.
1. Can you explain what the semantic web is? How “free” is today’s internet? How is it compromised?
The Semantic Web was at one time called 'Web 3.0'. If 'Web 2.0' was the ability for users to easily both read and write the Web (think Facebook) then Web 3.0 is a step beyond that. In essence, the Semantic Web is about linking together data that makes sense both to humans and to machines. It's about creating a World Wide Web of meaning. An imperfect example of this is Google Now which can tell you when to leave to get to a meeting depending on the current traffic flow on the roads you'll need to take to get there. It's an imperfect example because, as far as I'm aware, Google only uses Google's own data - whereas the Semantic Web is about working across silos of data.
In terms of how 'free' today's internet (and how it might be compromised) it's worth revisiting the four software freedoms laid out in the GNU definition of free software Where it mentions 'program' we can simply substitute 'website':
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The Web was built to be open and decentralised. Indeed, 65% of web servers are run on open source software from the Apache Software Foundation. It's the largest free public resource in existence.
However, the open Web is under attack for at least two reasons. First, as Anil Dash explains eloquently in The Web We Lost we have lost many of the things that made the Web great in the first place. We have turf wars between giant companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft who compete for users by making it increasingly difficult to move between their different offerings. As Dash states, this leads to:
"a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself."
So the Web is under attack from companies who want to lock you into their system, usually so that they can extract as much data as possible from you to sell to advertisers. 'Free' on the Web used to be a byword for 'Open Source' (as opposed to commercial or shareware). Now it means that you're the product being sold to advertisers.
But now that the Web is a platform for mass communication - and therefore identity - it is also under attack from those who want to control freedom of speech and expression. In times gone by this would be repressive regimes from whom we in the West would disassociate ourselves. However, with the revelations in 2013 about the US National Security Agency's actions, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that supposedly democratic regimes have been snooping, hacking and otherwise investigating innocent people under the auspices of 'national security'.
All of this means that the Web is very different from 10 years ago - and almost unrecognisable from 20 years ago. There are those (me included) who are trying to restore some of what made the Web we lost good, but it will always be a battle against those who wish to lock it down - to limit freedom of speech and expression or make money from it.