Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

A Week to Define the Web for Decades

If you live or do business in the UK or the US, what you do in the next seven days could define the web for decades to come. By filing public comments with UK regulators and US legislators this week, you can change the course of mobile computing more than at any other time in the past decade. Read on for why this moment matters and how to seize the day.

By way of background, regulators in much of the anglophone world (and beyond) spent much of 2021 investigating the state of the mobile ecosystem.

This is important because Apple has succeeded in neutering the web's potential through brazenly anti-competitive practices and obfuscation. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, have undermined user agency in browser choice for fun and profit.

I kid.

It was all for profit:

Public statements from leading authorities who have looked into this behaviour leave a distinct impression of being unimpressed. Here's the unflappably measured UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) weighing in last month:

Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we're concerned that it's causing millions of people across the UK to lose out.

The CMA's 400+ page interim report (plus an additional ~200 pages of detailed appendices) didn't make the waves it deserved when it was released near the winter holidays.[1] That's a shame as the report is by turns scathing and detailed, particularly in its proposed remedies, all of which would have a profoundly positive impact on you, me, and anyone else who uses the mobile web:

The report sets out a range of actions that could be taken to address these issues, including:

  • Making it easier for users to switch between iOS and Android phones when they want to replace their device without losing functionality or data.
  • Making it easier to install apps through methods other than the App Store or Play Store, including so-called "web apps".
  • Enabling all apps to give users a choice of how they pay in-app for things like game credits or subscriptions, rather than being tied to Apple's and Google's payment systems.
  • Making it easier for users to choose alternatives to Apple and Google for services like browsers, in particular by making sure they can easily set which browser they have as default.

This is shockingly blunt language from a regulatory body:

Our market study has provisionally found that:

❌ People aren’t seeing the full benefit of innovative new products and services such as cloud #gaming and web #apps.

[2/5]

Our provisional findings also suggest:

💷 customers could be facing higher prices than they would in a more competitive market.

[3/5]

The report demonstrates that the CMA understands the anti-competitive browser and browser-engine landscape too. Its findings are no less direct than the summary:

Impact of the WebKit restriction

As a result of the WebKit restriction, there is no competition in browser engines on iOS and Apple effectively dictates the features that browsers on iOS can offer[.]

The CMA has outlined its next steps and is requesting comment until February 7th, 2022.

Apple, in particular, has demonstrated that it is a bad actor with regards to competition law. This post could easily contain nothing but a rundown of fruity skulduggery; that's how brazen Cupertino's anti-competitive practices have become. Suffice to say, Apple sees being fined 5M EUR per week over entirely reasonable requests a "cost of doing business." Big respect-for-the-rule-of-law vibes.

But this sort of thing isn't going to last. Regulators don't like being taken for a ride.

...Meanwhile in Washington

On this side of the pond, things are getting serious. In just the past two weeks:

We're even getting gauzy coverage of pro-regulatory senators. It's quite the moment, and indicates dawning awareness of these blatantly anti-competitive practices.

This Is About More Than Browsers

It's tempting to think of browser choice and app store regulation as wholly separate concerns, but neither the web nor apps exist in a vacuum. As the desktop web becomes ever-more powerful on every OS, even the most sophisticated app developers gain more choice in how they reach users.

Unleashing true choice and competition in mobile browsers won't only help web developers and users, it will level the playing field more broadly. Native app developers that feel trapped in abusive policy regimes will suddenly have real alternatives. This, in turn, will put pricing pressure on app store owners that extract egregious rents today.

Web apps and PWAs compete with app stores for distribution, lowering the price to develop and deliver competitive experiences. This allows a larger pool of developers and businesses to "play".

App store "review" and its capricious policy interpretations have always been tragicomic, but true competition is needed to drive the point home. Businesses are forced into the app store, requiring they spend huge amounts to re-build features multiple times. Users risk unsafe native app platforms when the much-safer web could easily handle many day-to-day tasks. We're only stuck in this morass because it helps Google and Apple build proprietary moats that raise switching costs and allow them to extort rents from indie developers and hapless users.

A better future for mobile computing is possible when the web is unshackled, and that will only happen when competition has teeth.

What You Can Do

This is the last week to lodge comment by email with the UK's CMA regarding the findings of its interim report. Anyone who does business in the UK and cares about mobile browser choice should send comments, both as an individual and through corporate counsel.

For US residents, the speed at which legislation on this front is moving through Congress suggests that this is the moment for a well-timed email or, more preferably, call to your elected senator.

If you live or do business in the US or the UK, this week matters.

Whichever geography you submit comment to, please note that regulators and legislators have specific remits and will care more or less depending on the salience of your input to their particular goals. To maximize your impact, consider including the following points in your comments:

Leaving your contact information for follow-up and verification never hurts either.

It's been 761 weeks since Apple began the destruction of mobile browser choice, knowingly coating its preference for a "native" device experience (in web-friendly garb) at the expense of the mobile web. This is the week you can do something about it.

Carpe diem.


  1. While the tech press may have been asleep at the wheel, Bruce Lawson covered the report's release. Read his post for a better sense of the content without needing to wade through 600+ pages. ↩︎

Washed Up

The term 'web3' is an attempted whitewash, and it isn't working
Photo by Jarrod Reed

The rhetorical "web3" land-grab by various VCs, their shills, and folks genuinely confused about legal jurisdiction may appear to be a done deal.

VCs planted the flag with sufficient force and cash (of dubious origin) to cause even sceptical outlets to report on it as though "web3" is a real thing.

Which it is not — at least not in any useful sense:

Thank god someone finally solved the problem of not being able to pay money to pretend you own a jpg

Technologies marketed under the "web3" umbrella are generally not fit for purpose, unless that purpose is to mislead:

Out of curiosity I dug into how NFT's actually reference the media you're "buying" and my eyebrows are now orbiting the moon

Short version:

The NFT token you bought either points to a URL on the internet, or an IPFS hash. In most circumstances it references an IPFS gateway on the internet run by the startup you bought the NFT from.

Oh, and that URL is not the media. That URL is a JSON metadata file

Here's an example. This artwork is by Beeple and sold via Nifty:

niftygateway.com/itemdetail/primary/0x12f28e2106ce8fd8464885b80ea865e98b465149/1

The NFT token is for this JSON file hosted directly on Nifty's servers:

api.niftygateway.com/beeple/100010001/

Image from Tweet

THAT file refers to the actual media you just "bought". Which in this case is hosted via a @cloudinary CDN, served by Nifty's servers again.

So if Nifty goes bust, your token is now worthless. It refers to nothing. This can't be changed.

"But you said some use IPFS!"

Let's look at the $65m Beeple, sold by Christies. Fancy.

onlineonly.christies.com/s/beeple-first-5000-days/beeple-b-1981-1/112924

That NFT token refers directly to an IPFS hash (ipfs.io). We can take that IPFS hash and fetch the JSON metadata using a public gateway:

ipfs.io/ipfs/QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz

Image from Tweet

So, well done for referring to IPFS - it references the specific file rather than a URL that might break!

...however the metadata links to "ipfsgateway.makersplace.com/ipfs/QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA"

This is an IPFS gateway run by makersplace.com, the NFT-minting startup.

Who will go bust one day

It's all going about as well as one might expect.

What has perhaps earned proponents of JSON-files-that-point-to-JPGs less scorn, however, are attempts to affiliate their technologies with the web when, in fact, the two are technically unrelated by design. The politics of blockchain proponents have led them to explicitly reject the foundational protocols and technical underpinnings of the web. "web3" tech can't be an evolution of the web because it was designed to stand apart.

What is the web proper?

Cribbing from Dieter Bohn's definition, the web is the set of HTML documents (and subresources they reference) currently reachable via links.

To be on the web is to be linked to and linked from — very literally, connected by edges in a great graph. And the core of that connection? DNS, the "Domain Name System" that allows servers running at opaque and forgettable IP addresses to be found at friendlier names, like infrequently.org.

DNS underpins URLs. URLs and links make the web possible. Without these indirections, the web would never have escaped the lab.

These systems matter because the web is for humans, and humans have feeble wetware that doesn't operate naturally on long strings of semi-random numbers and characters. This matters to claims of decentralisation because, underneath DNS, the systems that delivered this very page you're reading to your screen are, in fact, distributed and decentralised.

Naming is centralising.

"web3" partisans often cast a return to nameless, unmemorable addresses as a revolution when their systems rely on either the same centralising mechanisms or seek to re-create them under new (less transparent, equally rent-seeking) management. As a technical matter, browsers are capable of implementing content-addressed networking, thanks to Web Packages, without doing violence to the web's gaurantees of safety in the process. Still, it turns out demand for services of this sort hasn't been great, in part, because of legitimate privacy concerns.

"web3" proponents variously dismiss and (sometimes) claim to solve privacy concerns, but the technical reality is less hospitable: content-addressed data must be either fully public or rely on obscurity.

Accessing "web3"-hosted files is less private because the architecture of decentralisation choosen by "web3" systems eschews mechanisms that build trust in the transport layer. A fully public, immutable ledger of content, offered by servers you don't control and can't attribute or verify, over links you can't trust, is hardly a recipe for privacy. One could imagine blockchain-based solutions to some of these problems, but this isn't the focus of "web3" boosters today.

Without DNS-backed systems like TLS there's little guarantee that content consumption will prevent tracking by parties even more unknowable than in the "web 2.0" mess that "web3" advocates decry.

Hanlon's Razor demands we treat these errors and omissions as sincere, if misguided.

What's less excusable is an appropriation of the term "web" concerning (but not limited to):

Despite forceful assertions that these systems represent the next evolution of "the web", they technically have no connection to it.

This takes doing! The web is vastly capable, and browsers today are in the business of providing access to nearly every significant subsystem of modern commodity computers. If "web3" were truly an evolution of the web, surely there would be some technical linkage... and yet.

Having rejected the foundational protocols of the web, these systems sail a parallel plane, connecting only over "bridges" and "gateways" which, in turn, give those who run the gateways incredible centralised power.

Browsers aren't going to engineer this stuff into the web's liberally licensed core because the cryptocurrency community hasn't done the necessary licensing work. Intricate toil is required to make concrete proposals that might close these gaps and demonstrate competent governance, and some of it is possible. But the community waving the red shirt of "web3" isn't showing up and isn't doing that work.

What this amounts to, then, is web-washing.

The term "web3" is a transparent attempt to associate technologies diametrically opposed to the web with its success; an effort to launder the reputation of systems that have most effectively served as vehicles for money laundering, fraud, and the acceleration of ransomware using the good name of a system that I help maintain.

Perhaps this play to appropriate the value of the web is what it smells like: a desperate move by bag-holders to lure in a new tranche of suckers, allowing them to clear speculative positions. Or perhaps it's honest confusion. Technically speaking, whatever it is, it isn't the web or any iteration of it.

The worst versions of this stuff use profligate, world-burning designs that represent a threat to the species. There's work happening in some communities to address those challenges, and that's good (if overdue). Even so, if every technology jockeying for a spot under the "web3" banner evolves beyond proof-of-work blockchains, these systems will still not be part of the web because they were designed not to be.

That could change. Durable links could be forged, but I see little work in that direction today. For instance, systems like IPFS could be made to host Web Packages which would (at least for public content) create a web-centric reason to integrate the protocol into browsers. Until that sort of work is done, folks using the "web3" coinage unironically are either grifters or dupes. Have pity, but don't let this nonsense slide.

"web3" ain't the web, and the VCs talking their own book don't get the last word, no matter how much dirty money they throw at it.

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