The Web in Danger

I love the Internet. I love lots of things that are on the Internet. I have less love for things that want to undermine the Internet.

Tim O'Reilly, The War for the Web:

If you've followed my thinking about Web 2.0 from the beginning, you know that I believe we are engaged in a long term project to build an internet operating system. In my talks over the years, I've argued that there are two models of operating system, which I have characterized as "One Ring to Rule Them All" and "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," with the latter represented by a routing map of the Internet.

The first is the winner-takes-all world that we saw with Microsoft Windows on the PC, a world that promises simplicity and ease of use, but ends up diminishing user and developer choice as the operating system provider.

The second is an operating system that works like the Internet itself, like the web, and like open source operating systems like Linux: a world that is admittedly less polished, less controlled, but one that is profoundly generative of new innovations because anyone can bring new ideas to the market without having to ask permission of anyone.

I've outlined a few of the ways that big players like Facebook, Apple, and News Corp are potentially breaking the "small pieces loosely joined" model of the Internet. But perhaps most threatening of all are the natural monopolies created by Web 2.0 network effects.

One of the points I've made repeatedly about Web 2.0 is that it is the design of systems that get better the more people use them, and that over time, such systems have a natural tendency towards monopoly.

And so we've grown used to a world with one dominant search engine, one dominant online encyclopedia, one dominant online retailer, one dominant auction site, one dominant online classified site, and we've been readying ourselves for one dominant social network.

Doc Searls, Beyond Social Media:

Missing in action is credit to what goes below private platforms like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook — namely the Net, the Web, and the growing portfolio of standards that comprise the deep infrastructure, the geology, that makes social media (and everything else they support) possible.

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them. That’s what makes them infrastructural and generative. (Even in cases where protocols were owned, such as by Dave Winer with RSS, efforts were made to remove ownership as an issue.)

Tweeting today is in many ways like instant messaging was when the only way you could do it was with AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and ICQ. All were silos, with little if any interoperabiity. Some still are.

Chris Messina, The Death of the URL:

The rise of the “app store mentality” is a direct attack on the web, and on the very nature of free discovery and choice built upon URL-based hyperlinks. By depriving us the ability to pick and choose which “stores” we shop from on these devices — we’re empowering a new breed of middle men and ceding to them monopoly control over our digital experience. The architecture of the web was intended to withstand such threats — but that all changes when the hardware makers get into the content business! Even though developers are beginning to see the dark side of this faustian bargain, the momentum is huge — and big business smells money.

By removing our ability to navigate, choose, and share freely — these app stores are exchanging our freedom for a promise that they’ll keep us safe, give us everything we need, and do all the choosing of what’s “good enough” for us — all starting at ninety-nine cents a hit.

We cannot say we were not warned. We will not be able to say "nobody saw this coming". It's clear that, even those who are privileged by access and wealth and the ability to amplify their own voices have anticipated that we'll all be disenfranchised by the private companies that own and control our networks of communication. And yet, most of our effort and ambition in the technology industry are not going towards building for the open web. Most communities that are disadvantaged are still trying to win on networks that they don't own and will never control. Most of us are still cheering when the most powerful voices in culture and society embrace closed networks, instead of properly criticizing them for doing so.

I am still optimistic; Apple's control over smartphone usage with the iPhone today is but a sliver compared to AOL's enormous control over Internet access a decade ago, and AOL still eventually crumbled in the face of open standards. But the web's victory over the proprietary networks that have been built on top of it is not inevitable — it's going to take lots of hard work. And right now, it's not just the attention that's disproportionately lavished on proprietary platforms that want to undermine the open web, it's the money too. We'll have to turn those strengths into weaknesses if we're going to undo the trend towards disempowerment and centralization that's going on right now.

This, for me, is a social issue, a cultural issue, and a political issue, not just a technological issue. Perhaps we need to speak of it that way more often, to make the stakes clear.