How we are losing the war for a free and open internet

Complement this with a look at how over the last ten years the web has become and increasingly fractious place. We live in a world wide web that isn’t actually a world wide web, just a series of closed apps that rely on telecomm infrastructure:

Five years ago, most social photos were uploaded to Flickr, where they could be tagged by humans or even by apps and services, using machine tags. Images were easily discoverable on the public web using simple RSS feeds. And the photos people uploaded could easily be licensed under permissive licenses like those provided by Creative Commons, allowing remixing and reuse in all manner of creative ways by artists, businesses, and individuals.
•A decade ago, Technorati let you search most of the social web in real-time (though the search tended to be awful slow in presenting results), with tags that worked as hashtags do on Twitter today. You could find the sites that had linked to your content with a simple search, and find out who was talking about a topic regardless of what tools or platforms they were using to publish their thoughts. At the time, this was so exciting that when Technorati failed to keep up with the growth of the blogosphere, people were so disappointed that even the usually-circumspect Jason Kottke flamed the site for letting him down. At the first blush of its early success, though, Technorati elicited effusive praise from the likes of John Gruber:

[Y]ou could, in theory, write software to examine the source code of a few hundred thousand weblogs, and create a database of the links between these weblogs. If your software was clever enough, it could refresh its information every few hours, adding new links to the database nearly in real time. This is, in fact, exactly what Dave Sifry has created with his amazing Technorati. At this writing, Technorati is watching over 375,000 weblogs, and has tracked over 38 million links. If you haven’t played with Technorati, you’re missing out.

•Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn’t yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren’t about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links.
•In 2003, 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. There was such distrust of consistent authentication services that even Microsoft had to give up on their attempts to create such a sign-in. Though their user experience was not as simple as today’s ubiquitous ability to sign in with Facebook or Twitter, the TypeKey service introduced then had much more restrictive terms of service about sharing data. And almost every system which provided identity to users allowed for pseudonyms, respecting the need that people have to not always use their legal names.
•In the early part of this century, if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions. Vendors spent years working on interoperability around data exchange purely for the benefit of their users, despite theoretically lowering the barrier to entry for competitors.
•In the early days of the social web, there was 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 to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.
•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.

It is interesting to think of the ways this relates to the recent NSA scandals. The internet of today is defined by services where we give our information to another organization. Beyond giving personal information, we create information for these services, and they own it entirely. The NSA can go to what is literally only a handful of companies and learn everything about you: everything. We have already surrendered our right to privacy to these companies. And while none of these companies have great track records or have even shown the slightest respect for our information, we expect them to keep it from the government. It is quite patently ridiculous. And the only way to get our information back, the only way for ourselves to have any control over anything, is to start working towards more open standards for the web. Less walls paradoxically mean more privacy.

On a personal note:
One point that has always particularly annoyed the devil out of me is the complete inoperability of IM or chat services. There is no reason that GChat/Hangouts should not be able to talk with Facebook chat, Viber and and Skype, or any number of examples. All of these services compete on people not features. See, I have no desire for a facebook account. But if I want to chat with people on facebook, well I need to have a facebook account. Not everyone uses gmail. Not everyone uses Skype or WhatsApp. And while there is no reason those services shouldn’t be able to develop and open standard for such communication, they don’t. Because once they have momentum and a user base, it is in their best interest to stay closed off. The greatest difficulty in starting a new service of this sort is acquiring users. A great chat application or VoIP application is useless to me if no one uses it. And so it stays the same and all these companies compete based on their users, not their service.

It’s really analogous to the early days of email, when email could only be sent within a given provider. And it is just as ridiculous. I don’t know why it is expected that you maintain 5 different accounts just to communicate in the exact same way in each place.

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