Sat, Mar 03, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Will corporate behemoths close down the Web as we know it?

By Esther Dyson

Within the tech community, there is much angst about whether the Web is about to be “closed.” Will it be controlled by companies like Apple, Facebook and Google, or will it remain “open” to all? Will individuals be able to reach any content they choose? Will developers be able to serve users on any platform?

These questions are not new. Fifteen years ago, in the US at least, it was America Online (now AOL) that was closing the Internet. Millions of people were relying on it for Internet service and content. Today, AOL’s purported control of the Internet looks like a joke, but it was considered a real threat at the time.

The threats nowadays come from both new companies and new models. (More about governments some other time!) Facebook is getting a lot of press, owing to its omnipresence and its pending stock offering. Increasingly, many people go online to use Facebook and little else, while Facebook encourages people to stay on Facebook to play games on Zynga, shop through Facebook commerce pages and so on. Will Facebook control who gets to talk to us?

Likewise, Apple not only sells hardware; it controls, through its AppStore, what applications we can use on our iPads and iPhones. Amazon determines which books we read.

Google, for its part, is filtering our search results — both by focusing our attention on what also interests our friends, and by excluding Twitter and Facebook results from what we see (mostly because Google and Facebook/Twitter cannot agree on whether Google should pay them or they should pay Google).

Beyond these big players, smaller startups are increasingly focusing on apps — applications that capture a user and keep him or her safe from the open Web. These apps are typically cleared and registered by big players. For many people, Apple’s App Store is a benefit, because it ensures (for the most part) the quality and security of the apps. Various app stores perform the same function for Android phones, but with fewer restrictions and less security.

In short, you can choose from along a spectrum, with more security at one end and more freedom at the other. The Web’s openness or closure is not a matter to be settled once and for all, but rather a fluctuating situation (even if the Web takes on some other name). CompuServe and FTP (file transfer protocol, remember that?) were not the end of Internet history. The same is true of the World Wide Web. Nor will Google or Facebook and apps be the last word of the digital age.

The great thing about Internet companies is that they, unlike governments, can be relatively easily deposed. They cannot outlaw competition, and, though they can engage in anti-competitive practices and filter content for their users, eventually consumers and startups fight back.

Consider the Web site Pinterest — “Organize and share things you love” — which has recently gone from startup to 11 million visitors a week. Even more recently, it has attracted negative attention for secretly profiting from its users’ behavior and spamming their Facebook friends. Should we wait for users to notice, or should we call on some government to save them from their own blissful ignorance?

How can we distinguish between paternalism and our duty to protect people from companies with incomprehensible privacy statements? If people are happy with Facebook, why should we disturb them?

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