What’s ‘open’ anyway? Walled gardens will never stifle innovation and shouldn’t be confused with Net neutrality

The Web is a teeming commercial city. It’s haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies and hucksters roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble seems to dominate major sites.

People who find the Web distasteful — ugly, uncivilized — have nonetheless been forced to live there: it’s the place to go for jobs, resources, services, social life, the future. But now, with the purchase of an iPhone or an iPad, there’s a way out, an orderly suburb that lets you sample the Web’s opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff. This suburb is defined by apps from the glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center, out in pristine Applecrest Estates. In the migration of dissenters from the “open” Web to pricey and secluded apps, we’re witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight.

(Virginia Hefferman, “The Death of the Open Web”, New York Times, May 17, 2010)

The Internet has been extremely bad news for control freaks of any kind, ever since it started being used by enough people to become a mass phenomenon. Of course, in the modern world, the worst control freaks have tended to be governments. Yet a Big Brother, well or badly-intentioned, lurks in every one of us, and there can hardly be any user of the Internet who has not at some point been annoyed by something that has been posted there, available for the world to read, watch or listen.

The editor of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, a book recently published by Tim Wu, summarizes his thesis as follows:

Most consider the Internet Age to be a moment of unprecedented freedom in communications and culture. But as Tim Wu shows, each major new medium, from telephone to cable, arrived on a similar wave of idealistic optimism only to become, eventually, the object of industrial consolidation profoundly affecting how Americans communicate. Every once free and open technology was in time centralized and closed, a huge corporate power taking control of the “master switch.”

‘Open’ Internet actors as blundering democracies, ‘closed’ ones as particularly talented yet enlightened despots? The frontier is actually far more blurred than you’d think: Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and Google have all been ‘open’ or ‘closed’ depending on what suited their strategy at any given time ans on how you choose to perceive them

Mr MG Siegler, writing in TechCrunch, makes an apt distinction comparing open and closed ecosystems on the Net with republican and monarchical forms of government: his point is that neither is a guarantee of good government; experience shows that enlightened despots can be succeeded by mindless, feeble or cruel tyrants, and that democracies are not immune from corruption and decadence, as the case of modern France, for instance, shows us.

The same is true in the IT sector: Microsoft, by licensing its software to run on any compatible computer, arguably started off as a Republic, but gradually became so powerful that it became a complacent monopoly, inviting competition from fitter, leaner players; AOL, as pointed out by MG Siegler, was initially perceived as more ‘democratic’ than Compuserve because it allowed easy and unfettered access to the emerging Word-Wide Web, without restricting where its users chose to go; yet when providers, towards the end of the 1990s, began offering unlimited access, AOL went into irreversible decline because in the emerging ecosystem, it ceased to be perceived as an open system but rather as an outdated, inefficient walled garden.

These trends are still at work nowadays. Apple’s iPhone ecosystem, which has driven the company’s growth—and the growth in its share price!—over the past three years can be compared to an exceptionally efficient, enlightened despot: a cross between Frederick the Great and Catherine II, perhaps, offering users a stunningly well-designed, efficient product that leaves some room for initiative via the App Store system, yet setting strict limits on that initiative in the interest of optimising user experience.

Google’s Android mobile phone OS, by contrast, seems a model of democracy: apps aren’t censored in any way and the OS can be installed, like Windows, on any compatible phone. Yet openness, like democracy, can be a double-edged sword: Paul Stamatiou pointed out in his recent review of the HTC EVO 4G Sprint Android phone, which is the hottest new device running Google’s system, that

Android apps are nothing like iPhone apps. Most are crap. One of the most popular apps is a task killer application to keep things running smooth, or at least that’s the claim. I have noticed the phone get slow to a crawl at times unless I keep an eye on how many apps are open, despite Android’s stellar memory management.

The Android is also a good example of how subjective the notions of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ actually are in practice: the manufacturers using it are all customising it extensively, meaning the Android interface, which is already arguably uglier than the iPhone’s, can only get uglier. Each of these customised phones and operating systems will in effect become miniature walled gardens, with a lot of manufacturers supplying consumers with heavily-branded phones with preinstalled branded apps: the end-user of a ‘republican’ system will arguably end up less free than if he chooses Mr Jobs’s enlightened despotism.

Being closed is synonymous neither with being evil, nor with being good: the reality is that every tech actor does it in one form or another

Above all, as Mr MG Siegler points out in the above-mentioned article, like enlightened despotism, a system being ‘closed’ is not always a bad thing:

The fact of the matter is that closed systems are useful in certain circumstances. One key one is mainstream appeal. AOL was appealing to people because it was easy to understand and seemed (relatively) safe. People started using Facebook because it was easy to understand and seemed (relatively) safe. People are now using the App Store because it is easy to understand and seems (relatively) safe.

What this ultimately also shows is that there is a natural tendency for actors in the IT sector, just as in any other commercial sector, to attempt to lock in users by any means they can. Because they’s do so in different ways, it’ll be easy for them to thrust damning accusations of being ‘closed’ at their competitors, as Mr Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, and Mr Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, did in a rather meaningless tit-for-tat exchange towards the end of April:

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.

(Mr Steve Jobs, Thoughts on Flash, April 2010)

Mr. Narayen says that the difference is that Adobe believes in open content. He says that their Creative Suite software was designed to work on multiple devices and that Apple’s “recent behavior show[s] that they are concerned about Adobe being able” to provide this product that works across multiple platforms.

(Mr Narayen’s response to Apple in his interview with the Wall Street Journal)

The reality is more prosaic: Apple, Adobe, Facebook are all closed systems in ways that individually suit them.

The backlash from users if tech actors go too far means the system should prove self-policing

Does this mean that a whole swathe of users are on the verge of deserting the Web? Mrs Hefferman seems to believe it’s a risk:

The far more significant development, however, is that many people are on their way to quitting the open Web entirely. That’s what the 50 million or so users of the iPhone and iPad are in position to do. By choosing machines that come to life only when tricked out with apps from the App Store, users of Apple’s radical mobile devices increasingly commit themselves to a more remote and inevitably antagonistic relationship with the Web.

I doubt this will ever happen. If tech companies go beyond what users find reasonable, these extensions of their walled gardens will eventually damage their image to the point where consumers will feel locked in and the actor concerned will be tarred as ‘uncool’: that, in effect, is what happened to AOL when it persisted in making its subscribers use proprietary applications for everything. Yahoo ceased to be cool for the same reason: it tried to do too many things, but wasn’t able to convince users that it was doing any of them well. In tech, barriers to entry are low and have been been falling for the past fifteen years. The sector is the opposite to a natural monopoly, and if users don’t like the service they are using, it usually isn't difficult for them to vote with their feet.

Is Facebook, though, the exception that confirms the rule? Its recent fall from grace is a textbook case of what can happen to a tech actor that oversteps the mark—yet Facebook has become evil in a specifically perverse way, because it has come closer than any other to providing what amounts to a public service: online identity

Facebook is actually in danger of making that very mistake we identified—giving the impression that it wants to take control of every aspect of its users’ lives and making it a caricature of a closed system attempting to push its advantage to the absolute extreme:

  • Mr Steve Rubel speculated, at the start of this year, that Facebook might sooner or later launch its own phone—yet there is no guarantee, to say the least, that Facebook will succeed in building a better phone than Apple or Google—and given its recent track record, I think a lot of people, me included, will in any case think twice before trusting Facebook with its phone data;
  • the social web is fast approaching the importance of online search in terms of Web traffic; Facebook and Google have already started competing in search, but Facebook is in danger straying so far from its original area of business that it may end up overreaching itself.
  • more seriously, Facebook, in its recent attempt to force users into sharing information about themselves that they had previously intended to share only with their friends, has compromised their privacy in order to increase its profitability [i] or at best, in the name of a naive and utopian view of privacy.

As Mr Ryan Tate, writing in Vallewag, put it:

Facebook is a business. An incorporated, well-organized business, in Silicon Valley with heavy funding from venture capitalists. Facebook's board members brag about how much money the startup takes in. Facebook employees are so hungry to cash out their stock options that the company turned to a Russian investment firm and its scary oligarch backer in order to get enough cash to buy them out.

Facebook is in it for the money, wants to make a lot of money, is in fact fiduciarily obligated to its investors to be "doing this for the money." Facebook is not a hippie collective of open-source do-gooders paid in massages, pot brownies and gratitude. Mark Zuckerberg did not put "I'm CEO, bitch" on his business cards because he cares about you, J. Random User, and he's lying when he says it's not about the money. In Silicon Valley, it's always about the money. And everyone always dissembles about that. Just not this brazenly.

Facebook has made all these mistakes at a stage where it has already achieved worldwide membership of half a billion, the vast majority of which is no more discerning about these issues than the population of an undeveloped country about its democratic rights. For that reason, although the site has already become distinctly uncool, it has already established itself as the de facto repository of online identity on the web and is unlikely to lose that position anytime soon. Just as IBM, Microsoft and AOL took a long time to die and still remain enormously profitable even when they no longer add any value whatsoever to their users’ online experience, so Facebook is probably destined to become tomorrow’s dinosaur, albeit a particularly nasty one: its it has shown itself capable of abusing a monopolistic position to an extent that only impartial and enforceable regulation can control. The contrast with Google, the obvious other candidate for scrutiny because of the vast quantity of personal data that it collects about its users, shows that it’s possible for such a company to be hugely profitable without compromising its users privacy: Google offers complete control over what data is shared, as well as a detailed list of what data it has gained access to and an opportunity to fully delete it from its servers at any time.

Facebook is unlikely to be allowed to get away with its privacy violations: the US Senate and the Federal Trade Commission have both already initiated investigations of Facebook privacy violations and in a jurisdiction such as the United States, where the rule of law is upheld and abuse of dominant positions is systematically and fairly upheld, a balance will be restored between the protection of personal liberty and technological innovation.

Ultimately, Net neutrality—the openness of the entire system, as opposed to that of each of its individual components—is the real issue at stake: it cannot be compromised, especially by allowing governments or interests that are unlikely to act in the public interest any say in the governance of the Internet

Yet there is a point beyond which openness must never be compromised, and that is the Internet itself: there’s a major difference between Net neutrality and ‘openness’ when applied to actors in the IT sector. The Internet itself has effectively become a utility: in developed countries, at least, access to the Internet is increasingly felt to have the same importance as access to water or electricity. Because there’s only one Internet, but that it is accessed through countless providers, there’s always a temptation for anyone with the authority to do so (governments, Internet access providers, or companies providing access to their employees) to police what content users may or may not access.

Thus ultimately, what will save the Web from becoming a network of oligopolistic walled gardens will be the neutrality of the net itself. Because it has achieved the same importance in the furtherance of personal and collective freedom as other rights cherished by advanced, societies, unfettered access to the Web should be given the political, economic and social importance it deserves in any democracy worthy of the name. It isn’t surprising that governments in China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are desperately trying to limit their citizens’ freedom to access information online; it is worrying that the administrations in countries like Australia and France, that should know better, have shown a distinct willingness to follow suit, albeit for slightly different reasons.

Just as any other area that involves co-operation across borders on a vast scale, the public interest will not be served on the Internet through the operation of market forces alone. We have here a clear case where a comprehensive set of rules must be drawn up and enforced in equity by as large a number of the international community as possible. Governance of the Internet has already evolved considerably from the days when the networks based on the ARPANET were government funded and therefore restricted to noncommercial uses, before commercial use of what had become the Internet developed in the early 1990s.

There is no evidence that its current operation is in any way dysfunctional: ICANN is a non-profit corporation, operating at arm’s length from the US government. Attempts by the United Nations to take over the governance of the Internet, which have so far been resisted, would if revived almost certainly sign the death warrant of Net neutrality, much in the same way that the United Nationas Human Rights Council has degenerated into a repulsive farce. The United States offers standards of fairness, democracy and openness that cannot be beaten elsewhere and while the current system, while it will never prevent some governments from restricting access, as certain states in Asia, the Middle East, Levant and Europe has increasingly done recently, is probably the most protective of users’ rights on offer.

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  1. Mr Daniel Lyons, writing in Newsweek, put it rather well when he stated: “The truth is, Zuckerberg needs your data. His business is built upon it. The most important thing to understand about Facebook is that you are not Facebook’s customer, you are its inventory.” []