Freedom is for losers

By Rick Jelliffe
August 8, 2009

That is a provocative title, and I mean the opposite (or do I mean the dual?): The more market/bazaar success a technology has, the more it will need to be subject to scrutiny and regulation. At the extreme —market domination— this may involve the full range of carrots and sticks; and the dominator will feel picked on. Tough, it is a cost of doing business.

Of course, regulating a technology really involves regulating its producers and consumers and mediators, and this is much easier and more feasible for corporate producers and consumers. And the phenomenon of a market dominator shoring up its commercial rivals or their strategies in order to evade or avoid categorization by regulators as a monopoly is not unheard of: Microsoft's share in Apple, its deals with Novel and Sun, and its support of ODF probably have an aspect of this about them, though I am not saying this is the only or dominant rationale for them.

I am a fan of the losers, mind you: artisan software developers, individual researchers and eccentric visionaries are the bedrock of much of what is interesting and important. Most ideas that get packaged in a patent gather dust, and most ideas created out of corporate research get weighed against the local corporate objectives and buried. A world with only the losers would be stimulating but frustrating; a world with only the dominators would be stifling but efficient. What was it at CERN that allowed Tim Berners-Lee to initiate the WWW for example?

Carl Hewitt has an interesting collection of his concerns about Wikipedia at Knol. To give a flavour, here are the heads:

  • Censorship by Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia relies on outlawry

  • Vandalism and harassment by Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia is a communal blog, not an encyclopedia

  • Wikipedia's business model

  • Wikipedia libels and vilifies people

  • Deception by Wikipedia

  • Can Wikipedia be reformed

  • The world that Wikipedia made: the ethics and values of public knowledge

  • For the greater good of Wikipedia, Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales should resign from its Board of Trustees

It is a stimulating set of pages. But it is interesting to me not so much because of my Wikipedia adventure, but because Wikipedia through dbpedia is increasingly becoming the key source for basic terms for use with RDF.

My Wikipedia adventure was prompted because a search on Google for OOXML brought up the Wikipedia entry which MS thought was slanted, and MS tried to figure out legitmate ways to remediate this. I don't know whether Carl Hewitt would see it as the same kind of problem he faced in kind or extent, but it is in the same ballpark.

So you have one market-dominating company concerned that the market-dominating search returned information from the market dominating reference source.

I would be tempted to extend this further, and say that is concerns ISO standards, where ISO is the market dominating standards organization: however, I don't think this is actually the case (certainly for IT standards) because IT standards tend to filter through a larger active set of national and consortium standards bodies, because the ISO copyright and payment rules on most standards actively prevents their adoption, because it is adoption as national standards that may have more impact in some nations, but ultimately it is not ISO standardization that brings market prominence but marketing efforts that try to convince adopters that an voluntary IT standard is somehow something they should adopt without taking a good hard look at it.

Now RDF is far from being a success story. But let us assume that in ten years time we have a lot more linked data, enough of a critical mass to allow some good consumer applications of RDF.

We have to make sure that our links to Wikipedia are not building in assertions or implications that the texts of Wikipedia, as distinct from the topics, are objectively correct or complete. Wikipedia is not a collection of facts: entries can veer towards truthiness.

If RDF becomes popular, and if Wikipedia becomes the primary source of topics for the semantic web, as it already is for the human web and searches, then maybe we will need to adopt similar kinds of scrutiny and regulation that are now appropriate to the Microsoft/IBM class of market dominators? I don't mean this in an anti-libertarian way: eternal vigilance is the price of etc. It is an issue that will come up, I am sure, in states which regard truth as the domain of the state (though, since every state has an education system, the syllabus does make truth the decision of the state): indeed it has already come up for Google and Yahoo in relation to China.

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