What do computer programmers think about Microsoft's role in the development of the Internet, and the social implications of the underlying technical issues? We asked Harry Hochheiser, an Internet software developer and board member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility for his perspective. At the core of Hochheiser's concern is the corporatization of Internet development, of which Microsoft is a powerful participant: the shift from open, collaborative software development "to build a system that works" to closed industry consortia whose corporate members are designing the global information infrastructure to serve their own competitive advantage rather than public good.
Founded in the early 1980s to respond the threat of nuclear war, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) is a US-based nonprofit organization addressing the impact of computer technology on society. The organization is currently involved in initiatives to ensure open Internet governance and use.
This interview was conducted in January 1998, shortly after Microsoft reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to remove its Internet Explorer icon from the Windows desktop.
CW: How does the US Department of Justice's case against Microsoft impact computer users?
HH: The issue for individual computer users is, what do you see when you turn on the computer?
Right now, if you go out and buy an Intel class or compatible computer it's almost impossible to find without having Windows 95 preinstalled. And with Windows 95, it will come with some large set of software. And with all this software, usually there's some form of a Net browser. That's the way it's been -- you turn on the computer, and there's the Internet Explorer icon from Microsoft, and you've got Microsoft's Web browser.
A sort of a small milestone in the suit with the Justice Department, was that Microsoft agreed that that particular icon would not come up when you turn on the computer. Most of the software will still be there, but the icon won't be.
Now what does that mean? It means that it's going to be a little bit harder [to use] the Explorer. It also means that the functionality of Internet Explorer that Microsoft has been trying to push in their next big advance will not be available. That functionality is Active Desktop, which tightly integrates the functioning of your computer and your desktop -- your screen and your file system -- with World Wide Web. What they're trying to do is eliminate the distinction between what's on your hard disk and what's on the Web; you access it in an integrated manner. Active Desktop will be something you'll now have to install manually.
CW: In terms of a user perspective, is there an advantage in having a little bit more choice?
HH: Once you're getting information off of the Internet, if you have Internet Explorer right there, it's certainly easier than going out and looking for something else, like Netscape. For all practical purposes, in real use, most users are never going to know the difference between using Netscape and Internet Explorer. Although there have been some sites that have been criticized for only working with one of the browsers.
Web browsers work by interpreting this language known as HTML, which is HyperText Markup Language. Now, HTML is a standard that's evolving, and it's evolving through inclusion in the new browsers faster than the "standard" itself is changing. If Microsoft comes out with some new feature, or if Netscape does, that involves something that isn't in the other company's Web browser, and somebody then builds a Web site to use those facilities, it will in essence be inaccessible to the person with the other Web browser. Paramount's Star Trek site for a while was not accessible to people using the Netscape browser. And then there was a lot of complaining and people saying this is not cool, this is not nice, and so they recently changed that.
CW: That's been there from the beginning, even with older versions of the same browser.
HH: That's a good point, and an interesting one. If you look back at the older documents and some of the discussion of the beginning of the Web, and the work that Tim Berners-Lee did in the early '90s, he said the World Wide Web was supposed to be accessible to anybody using whichever software you wanted. So if you had Mosaic, which was the first graphic browser for the Web, then you could see all the nice pretty pictures. But, if you had Lynx, which is a text-based browser that a lot of people use on DOS or on other systems that can't support the graphics, then you should be able to get all of the information there. And it should come out still looking pretty good, you just won't see the pictures. That was his idea, because that would be the smoothest and most accessible thing for everybody involved.
Then Netscape and Microsoft and other companies came on and essentially said the heck with that, we've got too many cool things we want to do, and then they started changing things around. It's not accurate to say Microsoft does bad things in that sense. Netscape is equally culpable because they've done a lot of that as well. It really goes against the spirit of saying we'll just have something that will work out for whatever piece of software people have.
CW: With Microsoft, are we looking at basically an issue of consumer choice in software applications, or there larger issues? I'm thinking of that shift that you talk about with Tim Berners-Lee's original idea vs. we're-all-at-the-mercy-of what these software companies are developing for us.
HH: You've used Netscape or Microsoft recently? You ever notice the bookmark list that it comes with? I'm looking at one right now, where it's got, say, Banking and Finance, and it's got Bank of America and Charles Schwab, Citibank. And under education, it's got Discovery Channel, and under entertainment it's got America Online, Dilbert, Disney and things like that. That is the selling of the desktop.
Previously, even in earlier versions of Netscape, like Netscape 3, you got a browser that was fairly neutral. I'll say fairly; Netscape automatically started you up pointing to Netscape's site. But there wasn't a lot there that said these are the Web sites that you're going to favor, that you should go to, that will get some sort of primary space; there wasn't any advertising or any marketing involved beyond that, including of Netscape's site. Now, in this version, I can count probably 30 or 40 different vendors listed by default in the bookmarks. And all the way down at the bottom of the list it says "My Stuff."
Now I'm going to assume these companies are not there because Mark Andreesen thinks they're cool companies. I would assume that these companies have paid for the inclusion on this default browser. That marketing of what you're going to look at is very much like putting a billboard on the side of a hockey rink at at hockey game, like the NHL does. I've heard it described as the selling of attention. Trying to market and control and influence what people see, because that's going to influence what they purchase -- that's the concern that I have with Microsoft.
CW: Is antitrust law an effective way of dealing with this issue of market power over the development of the Internet?
HH: Well, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems that there are definite issues relating to how standards get made. There was a long history on the Internet, and it still exists, of standards being made through a fairly open group called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF was very much open, in the sense that anyone who contributed to the work was a member. There is no formal membership. For years it was dominated by people who were in academics or in the corporate world, but they were still trying to build systems that worked. They were much less concerned about making profits, or getting competitive advantage. That's the way things went up until the early 90's.
Now we have an environment where people may be trying to set standards in the Internet in a way that tries to get them competitive advantage. We have Microsoft and Netscape changing things around to try to get their own advantages. Finally, we have a new standards group for the World Wide Web called the W3C Consortium, the World Wide Web Consortium, which is now run by Tim Breuners-Lee. And, in stark contrast to the IETF, the W3C is something where corporations spend $5,000-50,000 to be members, and their work is very much closed. So what's going on with W3C, and how is that going to influence the Internet? I'm not very pleased with it; I don't think it's a great thing. Is the federal government or antitrust law an effective way to deal with some of these things?
It's important to remember that if it weren't for the US taxpayers and years of support the Internet wouldn't exist. And the government currently has in many ways, its own hands into things in the Internet. But I don't know what they're going to do regarding Microsoft and its particular influence. I'm afraid that the government will perhaps not do enough.
CW: You refer to the IETF and the W3 Consortium. There's a point at which software development, particularly Internet software development, plays a social role. What would be an ideal structure for addressing the fact that technological development also impacts social development?
HH: That's very tricky. The first case in point that is that the closed organization promoting things is of serious concern, whether it be a government trying to dictate the way things are done, or a corporation, or a consortium that is closed to people who can't shell out big bucks to be involved. I don't know how we can eliminate such things, I don't know that we can legislate against them, you can't really outlaw consortia without running into other serious concerns.
The other thing that I would like to see done is to achieve a change in mindset. A long running tenet of CPSR is that you cannot say the technology is just neutral. It's important to look at how things get done and how the software gets written, to say what is this setting up and what is this allowing? The problem is that it's often hard to get someone to think about that when they're being well-paid by a corporation who doesn't want them to think about that, they want them to get done what's in the corporation's best interest.
CW: Do you see open standards as being a solution to the type of market dominance that Microsoft enjoys right now?
HH: The success of the Internet is a wonderful case example of the value of open standards. What has tended in the past to happen on the Internet is that somebody will say this is a good way of doing things, and they'll put out a Request For Comment document and some example software. And people will say that works pretty well, or we should change that, and at some point people like it enough and it gets used, and becomes a de facto standard. It doesn't necessarily get adopted as a "standard" document. The Internet is really a proof of how well open standards can work.
Now I don't think that really open standards are a solution to concerns raised by Microsoft and its power in the marketplace, but open standards at some level will continue to be something that's a big important part of the Internet tradition. A lot of things lately that have started off as being not open standards have moved in that direction in the past couple years, even when it's come from companies or from for-profit ventures.
CW: Are you refering to Java, or Netscape's opening up of its source code?
HH: Java isn't as open as it could be, but an example that comes to mind, is with encrypted electronic mail. A couple of different companies have had their solutions to that, one of which called PGP in Silicon Valley (Ed: now owned by Network Associates), and also RSA Data Security has another alternative that they call S-Mime, secure-mime, and there are currently two different efforts going on in the IETF community to standardize one or both of those things. These are proprietary systems being discussed in the standards arena, people are talking about making these things more open. It's not really clear which one will win out or which one will be the best, and that may be decided by the market, but they may both be out there as open protocols. So I would think that kind of thing will continue. Java is less of a good example in some ways because Sun has been trying to control some of the rights to define what Java is.
But I'm really truly fascinated with Netscape and their releasing of the code. In some ways that is making their own product an open system, although it's not really a standard. I don't know if it will work for them in a business sense, but it is certainly an ambitious and gutsy thing to do.
CW: Why should people interested in social change be concerned about Microsoft in particular, and other companies that are doing similar types of things, just not as dominant?
HH: The Internet is likely going to be a big part of how we communicate and exchange information and get information, increasingly so over the next few years. When I say we, I'm referring to mostly the well-heeled people in North America and Europe. As it becomes the Internet is where people go for their purchases, for their research, for their school stuff, for whatever you want, and soon enough most likely telephone going over Internet, we really need to look at what is the Internet for, whose goals should it meet, whose needs should be addressed, and how should they be addressed?
For example, is the Internet something that's commerce? Is it the world's biggest mall that you never have to leave your house for? I hope not. We're trying to say at CPSR, the Internet really should be a tool for communication, where people can exchange information and ideas, and to have a situation where non-commercial speech is still respected and valued and has a very real place. So that groups like Corporate Watch can put out their thing or somebody can detail their favorite TV sitcoms, or talk about social issues in some country that they've emigrated from or whatever else. That there are a great many things that do not involve just direct transactions of commerce, or are even totally unrelated to making money, that are very legitimate, important aspects of what the Internet can and should do.
Companies like Microsoft, like Netscape, for example, will be increasingly controlling how we see the Internet. By defining the software that comes on your computer or that works with your Web browser, these companies will be able to shape how we see Internet, and how we understand what's going on, and how we get things done, what we do or don't do. If we're not careful to watch what's going on, we will lose a lot of the potential of the Internet to the needs of corporations and industry, and government as well.