When you use an app, or a platform like a mobile phone, or a social network, or a web service — whether it’s from Google or Apple or Amazon or Facebook — do you think about the extent to which it is open or closed? Or do you just think about how it looks, or what it lets you do, or whether your friends are using it? Most of us probably fall into the latter category, but as veteran blogger Anil Dash and others have pointed out recently, there are some good reasons why we should care about the future of the open web, and be concerned about a trend towards more closed networks. As natural as that trend might be from a commercial point of view, it is the antithesis of what made the internet so powerful.
In his post, Dash — a former staffer at Typepad, one of the early blogging platforms, and co-founder of Thinkup and the media-consulting company Activate — tries to outline some of the things that we have lost as the internet has changed from a wide-open network to a host of proprietary platforms and closed formats. Some are likely to resonate more with hard-core geeks than with ordinary users, but I think he makes a number of really important points about what we are giving up when we hand over so much of our online (and mobile and social) behavior to companies like Facebook, Apple and even Google, that would-be champion of openness.
1) Control over our online identities
As Dash notes, less than a decade ago, “if you introduced a single-sign-in service that was run by a company, even if you documented the protocol and encouraged others to clone the service, you’d be described as introducing a tracking system worthy of the PATRIOT act.” Microsoft in particular spent billions trying to introduce a single sign-on platform for the web, and failed miserably in several different incarnations. And yet now, millions of people are more than happy to use their Facebook or Google identity as a default sign-on for almost every website and service they visit, which of course gives those companies oceans of valuable data.
2) Control over our personal data
In the early days of the consumer web, the idea that a single network or service would be able to control much of the data about you and your online behavior and purchasing habits — even with your permission — would have been almost unthinkable. And as Dash points out, those services that did have what we now call “user-generated content” made it relatively easy for users to download or share the content they created, because that was the expectation. While Google makes a point of allowing users to download data via what it calls its internal “data liberation front,” services like Facebook only allow access to some of the data they hold and block users from downloading other information (such as the email addresses of friends).
3) Control over where our content appears
Dash notes that the early days of the consumer web — particularly with the rise of blogs and hosted platforms like Blogger and WordPress — created a “broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites.” But as networks like Twitter and Facebook and Google+ (and before them MySpace and Friendster and others) have become more prominent, many web users seem happy to hand over their content and much of their online behavior to platforms that are owned and controlled by a single corporation, and networks that in some cases are based on proprietary standards. As Dash points out, this is partly due to the fact that such services make it so easy to create and share content.
“Five years ago, if you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so, without requiring a business-development deal or contractual agreement between the sites. Thus, user experiences weren’t subject to the vagaries of the political battles between different companies, but instead were consistently based on the extensible architecture of the web itself.”
If you don’t care whether it’s open, who will?
Although Dash doesn’t go into it in detail in his post, it’s worth pointing out that before the rise of the open and more personally-controlled consumer web that he describes, the way that many people experienced the internet was through closed and proprietary platforms like America Online and CompuServe — a series of walled gardens that many have compared to the rise of Facebook — and that persisted into newer technologies like instant messaging. Eventually more open services took over, as consumers shrugged off closed networks in favor of more open standards.
Law professor Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality,” has argued that technology markets (including earlier versions such as electricity and the automobile) often go through cycles of being open and closed. Companies that rose to prominence because of the open internet in many cases try to lock down their services once they have become successful, in order to make it harder for others to compete or to make monetization easier. This trend, however natural, is one of the reasons why some have criticized moves by networks like Twitter to close down or control the way their data is used and which other networks they inter-operate with.
The rise of mobile technology has made this kind of closed approach even more commonplace, in part because device makers and service providers like Apple and Amazon want to lock their users into their ecosystem as much as possible, so that they can recoup the costs of developing the devices and services they sell. But this approach involves even more proprietary methods than we are used to with almost any other technology platform, with app stores and services that are completely closed and centrally controlled (with the notable exception of Google’s Android platform).
But the garden is so beautiful, and the walls so distant
The most difficult part of this phenomenon is that many — and perhaps even most — users seem happy to live in Apple’s walled garden or Amazon’s closed ecosystem or Facebook’s proprietary network, because they are so appealing. In other words, the garden is beautifully maintained by its owner, and the walls are difficult to see until it’s too late. And open systems like Android and Linux just seem like… well, like a lot of work. But as blogging and open-web pioneer Dave Winer has argued, if we aren’t prepared to do the work, then we get the internet we deserve.
Why should we care? Because as some of the architects of the early internet have pointed out — including the web’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Ethernet co-developer Vint Cerf, who has been lobbying against proposals by the United Nations aimed at regulating the internet — openness is what made the internet so powerful in the first place. Without the ability to distribute information to almost anywhere, from almost anywhere, using open standards that supported multiple clients and services, we literally wouldn’t have the internet as we know it. Why are we all so quick to build walls and allow others to build them on our behalf? Says Dash:
“To the credit of today’s social networks, they’ve brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they’ve certainly made a small number of people rich. But they haven’t shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they’ve now narrowed the possibilites of the web for an entire generation of users who don’t realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.”