Most people know something very basic about the World Wide Web – it was invented by Tim Berners-Lee. But the key to its success was not just the skill of its inventor; the standards behind the web were open, meaning that anybody could write a web server, web browser or web page. Dozens of programmes sprung up, all of them able to talk to each other.
A decade before, the Internet itself was developed collaboratively around open standards. People like Jon Postel and Vint Cerf (not Al Gore) collated and published them for anyone to implement. This gave us a global network of networks, independent from any one vendor or platform.
Open standards allow freedom from conformity. It doesn’t matter what platform people use, whether it’s an iPhone, a Windows desktop or a Raspberry Pi, or what programme you use on it, so long as you’re using the same standard for your data files or network conversations.
Open standards thus allow a free market. If you don’t like the software you’re using, you can swap to another one. Web browsers even advertise how closely they conform to the open standards of the web! Systems that involve closed standards mean that users are “locked in” to the vendor, who could withdraw support or up their prices. What was once the best solution to a problem may not remain so.
There are, of course, some problems with this decentralisation. Some standards are vague which causes problems with interoperability. The existence of many programmes to do the same job can cause confusion. But Liberal Democrats accept comparable problems in other decentralised structures, and believing that the benefits outweigh the difficulties.
For example, Skype is popular video-conferencing software, which uses a closed standard. Only Microsoft can create Skype programmes; it is only supported on the platforms that Microsoft choose, and only as well and for as long as Microsoft choose. If somebody wished to create a new Skype program, either because one wasn’t available for their platform, or because they had problems with the one that was, they’d be dependent on Microsoft for permission and details.
In comparison, the open Session Initiation Protocol standard for video-conferencing allows anybody able to run their own server yet still interoperate with others. Consider how that might tie in with the existing Liberal Democrat Account login. There are dozens of servers and clients available, both free and proprietary, zero-cost and commercial, hardware and software. If somebody wants to support SIP on a new platform, they have both the information and the legal ability to do so. It’s easy to create SIP software which does new things, such as an answerphone which e-mails recorded messages to you.
The Liberal Democrats were trend-setters in using technology to campaign, but its potential to help us is ever expanding. As we move forward, we should strongly consider the open standards which will help us remain free from conformity, and free from “lock-in” to particular vendors.