How to Use Rel to Free Culture

I’ve been reading Lawrence Lessig’s excellent Free Culture. I first worried about copyright nearly ten years ago, and I have become increasingly disturbed. His vision of a soviet future of controlled culture terrifies me. There should be marches in the streets and activists on the steps of the VAG. But there aren’t: few understand how important this is. There must be a way for us to use our strengths to our advantage. Can we leverage the net and everyone on it who cares in a way that’s unambiguous to our politicians? I have an idea, but there’s a piece missing. Perhaps someone can help me1.

Recently a group of hackers invented XFN, a beautifully simple way of representing relationships between people on the web2. The same technique is also used to link to the Creative Commons license. Their site talks about implementing the ability to search for works according to license3. But these links aren’t just useful for people searching for art – they are also a political statement, and we must use them as such.

But why not use the same approach to link to political beliefs? If you cared about a belief, you would create a hyperlink to a site representing that belief and set the rel attribute of the link (I suggest rel=”ideal”) to indicate that this is something you support. Search engines could then use this information to build a map of public opinion, something politicians would love. Regular people could spontaneously construct decentralized networks of interest. Unlike a petition or newsgroup, this approach carries with it all the advantages of decentralization: there is no need for planning of any kind, and the system is resilient.

The problem is authentication. If such a scheme existed, how could we prevent a group from essentially spamming the net with links to a particular cause? This I don’t know. Maybe spam-filtering techniques will eventually be up to the task. Maybe we use IP addresses or email addresses (except we can’t due to spam) to make it more difficult to fake a cause. Is there some unrelated standardized key?

Notes

1 Update 2004-04-26: I just discovered there is already a standard for this called Vote Links. There are several discussions about it, including one at Many-to-Many.

2 FOAF already offered what XFN does, and more, but I think XFN hits that 80/20 point of simplicity. All it requires is that the rel attribute of an html hyperlink be set with one of several values, for example <a href=”http:/www.geof.net/” rel=”friend”>geof</a>.

3 They focus on RDF and regular links which I think is a mistake – the rel=”license” method is trivial to implement, and because it’s generic it could benefit from wider adoption (for example, it can also be used to link to the GPL).

2004-04-15