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Ad tech ruined the web – and PDF files are here to save it, allegedly

One publisher's attempt to roll the internet back to a more innocent time

In January, an online publisher launched a website called Lab 6 that serves its content as a PDF to protest the state of the modern web, and has caused quite a stir.

There's nothing novel about posting PDFs to the web, but doing so as a protest against web technology is akin to taking a stand in the tabs-spaces debate – PDFs have long been a polarizing topic. Since then, two more issues of Lab 6 have been published, prompting disagreement among other web developers about the wisdom of this approach.

The author, who asked to be identified simply as "James" in an email exchange with The Register, justified use of the PDF format as an attempt to push back against modern web technology.

"PDF has many shortcomings," he wrote in his initial issue. "But in its cold, immutable fixity, it stands in opposition to the mercenary, dynamic web of rubbish."

His post cites the toxic effect of advertising on the web, complaining about how search engine optimization has led to the generation of "megabytes of adverts, distractions, upsells, misdirections, invitations to sign up to newsletters, cookie warnings, [and] GDPR warnings."

It rails against the mutability of web pages, updated without notice in an attempt to keep the attention of search engines. It laments the tracking and monitoring scripts that litter websites. And it decries the capture of the web standards community by browser vendors.

James, in short, rejects the way the web has evolved from a document-centric platform to an application-centric system. His solution is to publish files as PDF/A, "which forbids interactive content (normal PDFs can contain JavaScript!) and ensures your PDFs are absolutely self-contained, even embedding the fonts."

'Ignorance and stupidity'

Maximiliano Firtman, a mobile and web developer and author, dismissed the cri de coeur as noise. "PDF Is not a format suited to share in different formats and diverse devices," he told The Register. "It's a format created for printing. So it's like using a boat to drive across a street."

"There are much better choices, starting with just HTML with no external resources, epub, [or] markdown," he said. "PDF is not responsive, it's slow, it can't be translated, it's insecure, it's not accessible, [and] it can include embedded JavaScript proving it can be as harmful as any web page. It's just ignorance and stupidity."

In an email to The Register, James explained that Lab 6 is a personal project. "My employment is in an industry completely unrelated to web technology," he said. "My interest in the web is purely non-commercial, growing out of the Geocities pages I used to make in the 90s as a kid. Lab 6 is about more than shilling for Adobe (there’s a longitudinal capture-the-flag forensics exercise hidden in it, for example)."

He said he was surprised his site had received social media attention and noted that his most recent post is a hybrid PDF and Gemini file, "which might go some way to addressing a lot of the hate that PDFs attract."

James said there wasn't a single moment where web technology went off the rails for him. It's not all bad, he said, but he cited four specific concerns.

First, he objects to the movement away from HTML as a finished specification.

"HTML is currently effectively just whatever the browser vendors say it is, written down in a standard of sorts, but with no end in sight," he said. "It will never be finished, so the bugs will never be fixed, and the complexity has grown so immense that nobody other than the incumbent browser vendors can realistically implement the web at all any more."

Second, he took issue with the way independent bloggers have moved to specific platforms rather than running their own services. He said he could understand that as a response to the hostility of the internet – who wants to run their own infrastructure when it's under constant attack? – but he said the cost has been the death of format experimentation as content gets squeezed into standard templates and distributed through a handful of aggregators.

Third, he bemoaned the monetization of everything. "It’s impossible to search for, say, recipes online now and find an actual recipe without wading through insane volumes of advertising and SEO’d blather," he explained. "The kind of recipes you find on page one of search results seem to exist solely for the sake of attracting eyeballs, not because someone genuinely loved a recipe and wanted to share it."

And fourth, he denounced the web's shift from a document-centric to an application-centric model.

"The web is now an application hosting environment," he said. "You can still write a document in very plain HTML but there’s no demarcation between static documents and web applications. Even techies who pride themselves on writing efficient lightweight markup usually can’t resist putting a comment feedback form on the page or hiding some tracking JavaScript in the background."

James is not a fan of PDFs. They're ugly and inelegant, he explained. But he sees them as a way to mitigate the harm of the modern web ecosystem, one that's accessible to non-technical people through common tools like Microsoft Word.

Asked whether he felt the inability to alter PDFs through client-side intervention – something typically available to browser users viewing HTML documents – represented a loss, he disagreed.

"The fact that PDFs are not easily edited by users is a feature, not a loss," he replied. "It’s a terrible format for distributing data, but so is HTML (if you want to distribute data, it’s better to attach it as a separate tab-separated-values file than to rely on users being able to parse it out of an HTML table)."

"I don’t see PDFs replacing HTML by any means, but I do see them as one path to recovering the concept of the document," he elaborated. "A good outcome here would be for HTML to become the app platform of the web, and cede ground to PDF, Gemini, and others, as the document platform for the web."

"I would like to see more format experimentation, more diversity of thought and approach… a heterogeneous pluralistic web where people still try new things and challenge centralization and build out simpler, more sustainable, slower communities that ditch the like & subscribe culture." ®

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