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Abstract:

Today’s Internet scarcely resembles the mythological image of it as a fundamentally democratic system. Instead, users are at the whims of a small number of providers who control nearly everything about users’ experiences on the Internet. In response, researchers and engineers have proposed, over the past decade, many systems to re-democratize the Internet, pushing control over data and systems back to the users. Yet nearly all such projects have failed. In this paper we explore why: what are the goals of such systems and what has caused them to run aground?

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    Step 0: Stop burying content in PDF.

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      Eh, I’m ambivalent about PDF, but of status quo ways of distributing text online it’s one of the better ones. Not as good as plain text or plain HTML, but at least better than most blog posts (esp. those at places like Medium or Blogger). You can reliably save it for offline usage, it doesn’t have javascript doing weird things while you’re trying to read it, etc.

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        I have some longer thoughts on this which I had planned on writing up, but apparently didn’t, along similar lines. A lot of sites, lobsters included, tag PDF content which I think is mostly a holdover from days when it was a yucky format. omg, I have to run another program? But honestly, when I click a PDF link these days I can do so without worrying that I’m going to be greeted by some autoplay video, or some live discussion comment system sending pingbacks every ten seconds, that the content will most likely be formatted in some way recognizable to a literate human, etc, etc. At this point, it’s more like a badge of convenience. One click download and read later.

        If I were to start a new blog today, I might just make it PDFs on an FTP site.

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          If I were to start a new blog today, I might just make it PDFs on an FTP site.

          Plain text files over ftp might be even better idea :)

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            Or even over HTTP, since in the “serving files” case it’s even simpler than FTP.

            Or, if you do want fancy, IPFS

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            PDF is a terrible format for on-screen since it’s intended for print layout and so doesn’t re-layout to fit screen size.

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              Doesn’t constantly muck with the layout? Doesn’t lock the viewport? Doesn’t hijack scrolling? Sign me up!

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                If PDF works for you, then who am I to interfere? But for me, it’s an unreadable, useless format from a time when the way to read things was to print them out.

                Constantly scrolling horizontally or zooming out to fit a whole sentence on my screen is not my idea of usable :P

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                  yes it’s frankly obnoxious because computer screens aren’t paper shaped. Can we at least get pdfs that are formatted like a screen?

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                I personally don’t like 2-column PDFs on screens…

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                Yeah that’s exactly how I use it on lobsters. Quality tag indicating there won’t be an autoplay video, a popup begging for subscription, text reflowing while I’m trying to read it, etc. I browse the PDF tag fairly often too.

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                it doesn’t have javascript doing weird things while you’re trying to read it, etc.

                Are you sure about that? It looks like PDF already supports JS scripting.

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                  Time to replace jwz’s adage “all systems expand until they can send email” to “all systems expand until they can creepily track people over the internet”.

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                    For the most part I think pdf is pretty restricted about external resources and requests. The surveillance capital nightmare wouldn’t be possible if all scripts were restricted to a same origin policy.

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                      I don’t think most readers other than Adobe® Acrobat even execute that kind of stuff. Firefox’s PDF.js deliberately doesn’t run embedded Javascript, even though PDF.js itself is implemented in Javascript so could presumably do so if it really wanted to. And most other third-party PDF readers don’t build against a JS engine at all (e.g. Evince doesn’t).

                      In practice those features are almost never used in PDFs intended as documents, so disabling support errs on the safe side without causing any real problems. The only legitimate usage I’ve personally run across is in fillable forms, where an embedded script might do field validation and spreadsheet-style data propagation, so I use Adobe Acrobat for those.

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                        That is all true. But I think it’s mostly due to the fact that noone is using pdf documents this way. The moment it starts to be popular to publish as pdf (instead of html) I expect we would see the same exact js crap that we see on the ‘modern’ web today.