A way off the ranch

Doc Searls
5 min readApr 1, 2016
The architecture called “client-server” is now calf-cow.

As creatures on the Web, we have devolved. Once we were human, and now we are cattle. Client-server, the Web’s underlying architecture, has become calf-cow. We go to websites for the milk of content and get cookies that track us like animals.

This is not what the Net’s founders had in mind. Nor was it what Tim Berners-Lee meant for his World Wide Web of hypertext documents to become. But it’s what we’ve got, and it sucks. Evidence:

Studies by Pew, TRUSTe,Customer Commons and Wharton all make clear that more than 90% of the connected population doesn’t like privacy abuse on the commercial Web. Following people with tracking cookies and beacons violates their privacy. This is a big reason why ad and tracking blocking, through popular browser extensions and add-ons, is already high and continues to go up.

Eben Moglen explained this devolution in a landmark speech to the Internet Society titled “Freedom in the Cloud.” In the beginning, he said, the Internet was designed as “a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control, and assuming that every switch in the Net is an independent, free-standing entity whose volition is equivalent to the volition of the human beings who want to control it.” Alas “it never worked out that way”. Specifically,

If you were an ordinary human, it was hard to perceive that the underlying architecture of the Net was meant to be peerage because the OS software with which you interacted very strongly instantiated the idea of the server and client architecture.

In fact, of course, if you think about it, it was even worse than that. The thing called “Windows” was a degenerate version of a thing called “X Windows”. It, too, thought about the world in a server client architecture, but what we would now think of as backwards. The server was the thing at the human being’s end. That was the basic X Windows conception of the world. It served communications with human beings at the end points of the Net to processes located at arbitrary places near the center in the middle, or at the edge of the Net. It was the great idea of (Microsoft) Windows in an odd way to create a political archetype … which reduced the human being to the client and produced a big, centralized computer, which we might have called a server, which now provided things to the human being on take-it-or-leave-it terms.

And let’s not forget Netscape’s role. The HTTP cookie was created by Lou Montulli in 1994, when he was working at Netscape on the first e-commerce servers. The idea was innocent enough: to save work by remembering shared data, such as the contents of shopping carts. Today cookies are used for many other things, including user tracking, mostly so advertising can be personalized. Eben singles out Facebook as an especially egregious offender, and describes its offering this way: “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time”.

This trade-off is the rule, not the exception. In its late (and much missed) What They Know series, the Wall Street Journal said all but one of the fifty most popular websites installed tracking cookies in users’ browsers. (The only exception, no surprise, was Wikipedia.) One, Dictionary.com, installed 234 tracking files, of which all but 11 were from tracking companies. And that was in 2010.

The end state of this system was forecast in 1999 by “The Matrix.” From the standpoint of its business model, the advertising-supported commercial Web is a machine world in which people are nothing more than batteries to whom “experience” is “delivered.” In that world advertising companies are the agents, and the tracking cookie is like the electric scorpion that wiggles into Neo through his navel so he can be followed around.

No wonder ad blocking passed 200 million worldwide last May, with an annual growth rate of 41% worldwide, 42% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K.

And now we have the exquisite irony of The New York Times reporting on four Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You. Here is how that Times piece looks to the free tools Brian X. Chen (@bxchen)and Natasha Singer (@natashanyt) covered in the the story:

Each of the four is an add-on in Firefox or an extension in Chrome. I tested each alone with the others disabled and the page re-loaded.

Those four tracking-protecting systems (RedMorph, Privacy Badger, Ghostery and Disconnect) would all have given green lights to the Times if the paper just ran ads that aren’t based on tracking. You know, like the ones they run in print. Advertisers would still reach the Times’ desirable readers. And signaling to readers by advertisers would be clear and uncontaminated by the shitty practices that now pollute the whole digital media environment. (Don Marti and Bob Hoffman are required reading on this.)

The Times clearly isn’t fixing the problem. Nor is the advertising business, which Bob Hoffman nails in Bullshitters bullshitting bullshitters, his report on a recent ad industry gathering:

One of the sessions we’re sorry we missed was a panel discussion about ad blocking. The article I read about this session indicated that the panelists agreed that something had to be done and also agreed not to do a fucking thing.

As usual, the agencies blamed the publishers, the publishers blamed the agencies, everyone blamed clients for not paying enough for the crap they’re being sold or consumers for not understanding the terrible plight of the virtuous online publishers. What else is new?

Clearly it is time for us—the readers—to rescue ourselves, the publishers and the advertisers, for the good of everybody. We can do this by providing a way for THEM to agree to OUR terms, rather than the reverse. As I say at that last link, we are close to having a way to do exactly that, and we plan to finish that work during the last week of this month at the Internet Identity Workshop, which we hold twice a year at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

IIW is a no-bullshit event with no keynotes and no panels. Just people working on stuff that needs to be done. If you want to help, or just to hang out and watch history being made, register here.

We also prep for IIW the day before at VRM Day, the day before IIW, on Monday, 25 April. Register at that link. Same location.

Publishing is a perfect place to start this work, because the it creates a good deal for both sides. Publishers get to make money the way they always have, and readers get their privacy back. Advertising is worth more as well, because its signals are uncompromised by suspicions about it.

See you there, outside the ranch.

This piece began at www.linuxjournal.com.



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.