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Open vs. closed: What kind of internet do we want?

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If you step back far enough, beyond the ever-present Facebook vs. Google (s goog) or apps vs. browser debates, what you see is a tug-of-war that has been going on ever since the internet first started to hit the mainstream: the battle of open vs. closed, between the web giants and platforms that want to control almost every aspect of your online life and the traditionally open nature of the internet. The Pew Research Center’s latest report is a glimpse into one aspect of that, with some of those surveyed saying apps are the future and others saying they are evil, and Mat Honan’s essay at Gizmodo about the “case against Google” is another aspect of the same debate — the idea that Google, once synonymous with the open internet, is now just another web giant trying to control your online life. Where does the future lie?

We’ve talked about this open vs. closed battle before at GigaOM: how the chaotic nature of the early internet turned into early “walled garden” efforts like CompuServe and America Online (s aol), which ultimately failed as the open web reasserted itself (thanks in large part to the rise of Google and other early web companies) and then more recently Facebook and Apple (s aapl) and Amazon (s amzn) have created newer versions of the walled-garden approach — where owning the relationship with users from almost every angle is the goal. Every time Facebook comes under fire for its approach to privacy, or Amazon gets criticized for wanting to own the publishing industry, or Apple is slammed for its control over apps and the iOS platform, it’s another sign of this underlying tension.

Do we need to fight for the open web or just let it evolve?

Columbia law professor and net-neutrality expert Tim Wu discussed this back-and-forth between open and closed — a battle that has also been waged in areas like the telecom industry — in his recent book The Master Switch, and other long-time internet observers such as Esther Dyson have also looked at the issue. Dyson argued in a recent essay that this tension is a kind of natural phenomenon, and that we shouldn’t get too excited about the ebbs and flows of it at any one time, but others such as the web’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee have expressed concern that we are losing some fairly fundamental freedoms with the rise of closed platforms, and that we should fight this trend as much as we can.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium.

One problem with that fight, which is highlighted by the latest Pew report and its survey of thousands of internet users (some well-known and others anonymous) is that apps and walled gardens can be very appealing from a user-centric point of view — particularly the garden is well-tended and the walls are not obvious. They make the internet easier to consume on some fundamental level, just as AOL and CompuServe did in their time. For many younger internet users in particular (and possibly some older ones as well), Facebook effectively is the internet, because it gives them everything they need: games, social contact, some information, photo browsing, etc. Others are happy to use apps on their phone for virtually everything, and barely ever use a browser.

Google is at a crossroads between open and closed

As Mat Honan suggests in his essay, Google is at a crossroads between these two visions of the internet, and has been for some time now — whether it realized it or not. It was once the upstart that disrupted search and demolished earlier giants like Yahoo and AltaVista, with a service that was so simple it consisted of just a single box into which users could type whatever they wished. Now, it is a vast empire that touches our lives in dozens of different ways through an interconnected web of services, from email and photos and calendars to videos — and all of that is being woven together with the company’s new Google+ network as a social layer, and an identity platform that connects (or chains) users to the Google platform.

At some point in the recent past, the Mountain View brass realized that owning the Web is not enough to survive. It makes sense—people are increasingly using non Web-based avenues to access the Internet, and Google would be remiss to not make a play for that business. The problem is that in branching out, Google has also abandoned its core principles and values.

The launch of “Search Plus Your World” was in some ways a defining moment for the company: it sounds like a great service, and some users undoubtedly find it to be so, since it shows personalized content from a user’s social graph (provided that social graph is connected to Google+, of course). But giving content from its own internal network preferential status in search results — even in a limited way — is still a fundamental change from Google’s previous agnostic approach to web content, one that seems almost like a breach of its initial promise to users. That’s why observers such as former Google staffer Alexander Macgillivray, now chief counsel at Twitter, said it was a “bad day for the internet” when the service was launched.

For better or worse, Google has come to the realization that in order to prosper in the current age of the social web, it has to have more hooks into what people do, and thereby more insight (theoretically) into their purchasing intent, which is what advertisers are increasingly basing their behavior on. Facebook provides this in spades — although the ultimate value of its network from an advertising or e-commerce standpoint is still very much open to debate, as I described in a recent report for GigaOM Pro (sub. required) — and this is also the territory Amazon is after, and Apple as well. Controlling the platform and every aspect of the content within it, whether it’s iOS devices or the Kindle ecosystem, is the ultimate goal.

The question we are left with, as John Battelle and other open-web supporters such as Dave Winer have argued, is “What kind of internet do we want?” And unfortunately, the answer to this question is far from obvious. Advocates of the free and unfettered internet may not want to admit it, but plenty of users don’t seem to care whether something is a walled garden or not — all they care about is whether they can get what they want when they want it, and as easily as possible. In many cases, users don’t seem to really care about privacy and other considerations either, if the services they get are appealing enough.

All of which suggests that fighting for an open web doesn’t just mean beating up on giant entities like Google and Facebook and Amazon — it means figuring out how to convince users that they should care.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Fabio Venni and Mark Strozier

11 Responses to “Open vs. closed: What kind of internet do we want?”

  1. Scott Germaise

    Open or closed… for whom? For typical users, no one cares. Both Jebb and See commented on the safety issue. Sure, early ‘net clobbered Prodigy, AOL and CompuServe, but not because it was Open, but because it quickly got more cool stuff. Yes, it may have had more cool stuff due to its openness, but normal people don’t care how. They just want stuff to work.

    The Open vs. Closed argument is by academics, for academics. Or by and for those in the Web-Something-Point-Something Echo Chamber. As you’ve pointed out Matt, consumers flock to that which works and serves some needs. Privacy, (whatever that is), be damned. (Even though people claim privacy concerns, they behave more in a learned helplessness mode vs. activist.) And rarely become part of conversations like this. (In fairness, they’re actually busy; doing the usual stuff of the world.) So Google may own your Interest Graph, (what you seek), Facebook your Personal Social Graph, LinkedIn your Professional Graph and Amazon a lot of your Commercial Graph, (as have the credit card companies for years). Do they need to make all this available via API for everything to be open? Yes? No? What does it really take to be Open? Is Google Panda a wonderful protective measure or Closedness? Will Social Search will just be another form of Filter Bubble, (and perhaps not a very good one at that), or does everyone’s search history need to be shared – with permission – for Openness, why was old-fashioned “editing” bad, but oh-so-hip “curation” good? As for Battelle’s arguments… really? Check the comments. You think people on private medical forums want Openness? Or their walled garden? (Just as one example.)

    It doesn’t seem that the industry can even begin to agree on the answers to some of these questions. How do you expect to get consumers to care? What – specifically – should they be concerned about? Maybe some issues, like net neutrality might have a thumbs up / thumbs down kind of answer. But the rest? This will take awhile to sort out. And maybe within five to ten years, whatever comes after Google and Facebook will make looking back on this whole discussion as amusingly quaint and naive. It’ll be fun to watch!

    Scott Germaise

  2. In my opinion, the Internet should be neither completely open nor completely closed. Like just about everything else, there is no singular way of doing things (only fanatical zealots would believe the world is so black and white in extremes). The Internet should be open in the applicable areas where openness is the better strategy and closed in the applicable areas where it should be closed.

    The entire argument of open vs. closed, in my opinion, stems from proponents on both sides being too lazy to make the effort of discerning where each strategy is truly applicable. It is much easier to just declare a “one size fits all” approach rather than take the time to think which way works best under particular circumstances.

  3. Christopher Glenn

    I recently mused about the blurring line between apps and the web. I like how you have framed this and I think you are right–this is not a new debate, it’s as old as the mainstream internet–which is why I think open does win in the end.

  4. You may want to recheck your history. You mention “how the chaotic nature of the early internet turned into early “walled garden” efforts like CompuServe”. CompuServe was formed in 1969. The Internet was only four nodes in 1969.

  5. Of course I would like an open internet. Having open, unrestricted protocols has let numerous communities and projects spring up and flourish.

    Sadly, I think the open internet is a doomed as the lawless old west. People have proven, time after time, than without the threat of punishment, they are incapable of civil and moral behavior. The massive copyright infringement, fraud, and general chicanery are gradually forcing ever-tighter regulations. I suspect that, at some point, the basic protocols of the internet will be re-written to eliminate anonymity and bring the rule of law to this land of outlaws. The scumbags on this planet mean the rest of us can’t have nice things. Thanks!

  6. James Pasquale

    Well written piece and Jebb nails a lot of the kind of current thinking going on with efforts like FreedomBox, Project VRM, Personal Event Networks, PDEC, efforts like M2M and a like.

    As the Internet of things becomes more pervasive. We will see the emergence of The Live Web that will invariable be a mix of both. The question becomes a useful UI that individuals can “just get” and the ability to mix match and change as Jebb puts it the darknet to the open net. Escaping a walled garden is not enough, reputation based identity solutions are surfacing to address opening the garden gate and securely closing it behind you and vise versa. The age of stacks and silos is being replaced with rich APIs and easier access to dynamic data effecting every kind of interwoven relationship we have on and off the grid.

  7. I would just like an internet where you can search in peace, without being pounded by porn, have identity stolen, be hijacked or spammed.
    If that means losing some freedom, so be it.
    It will probably be the ‘freedom’ of the inter-naive like myself that will suffer, not the hackers that seem to find ways around everything anyway.
    Maybe I should just go back to writing letters, if only i could find a pen!

  8. jebb dykstra

    Enjoyed your article re Open vs. Closed. I agree with you that Facebook and Google and others are becoming more and more like the old AOL-style walled gardens. In some cases, I want and will continue to use my iPhone, iPad, gmail or scan FB for information.

    However, in many cases, I want and will escape the walled garden – temporarily or for good. I will want the ability to not just escape Apple, FB, Google, and others, but also oversight by bad guys or even gov’t oversight. The ability to take surfing, mobility and communications off the grid into a temporary or permanent darknet or to go into a private community that is NOT hooked into FB. To not even think or worry about whether somebody is looking over my shoulder for advertising or other purposes or dropping a cookie onto my computer or mobile device.

    I would say that we are also missing a second perspective re the type of Internet — darknet vs. open-net. The next step in the Internet is to enable end-users to create their own private platforms – which are in essence off the grid. Many users are already creating their own comm’s off the open internet and creating their own platforms to escape malware or oversight or to just have their own virtual territory. To come and go as we – without being tracked endlessly by Apple, FB, Google, or our gov’t — Now that would be nice.