September 2, 2009

Freedom At The Endpoints

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about Drumbeat, and what the Open Web actually means to me. This morning, I came across an article by Katherine Mangu-Ward titled Transparency Chic which reminded me about a few of its most important aspects.

Transparency Chic discusses a Firefox addon called RECAP which helps make U.S. Judicial Records as freely-searchable as everything in Google by taking any of the free information browsed through PACER, the Federal court system’s clunky web-based database that charges eight cents per page, and submits it automatically to a free Internet archive.

One of the foundational principles of the Internet RECAP reminds me of is Jonathan Zittrain’s notion, explained in The Future of the Internet, that the endpoint matters. Cell phones, console gaming systems, and PCs are some of the destinations of the information and functionality that the Internet is built to transmit. Yet only the PC unilaterally provides its user with an extraordinary amount of control to alter any aspect of its behavior through third-party software. If it weren’t for this fact, and if it weren’t for the generativity enabled by Firefox exposing its internals to addon developers—that “freedom at the endpoint”—a subversive-yet-legal tool like RECAP simply couldn’t exist and be so accessible to so many people at once.

Of course, this isn’t to say that freedom at the endpoint doesn’t carry with it a slew of safety concerns, like viruses and malware—but these are problems we want to be able to solve without losing the freedom that makes our endpoints as innovative as they are. Drumbeat should raise awareness about this notion because it’s a freedom most of us take for granted, and it’s one that could easily disappear if stewards aren’t there to protect it.

© Atul Varma 2020