The Cambridge Analytica controversy has brought into sharp focus a discussion about the kind of Internet that we want. Has the Internet stayed true to the vision of the early cyberpunks, and if not, how do we get it back? Can the genie be put back in the bottle?
Over the last six years, the Internet has become dominated by the walled gardens of Facebook and Google. Google has started to build walls around its content, and no longer linking to the sources that the content was originally built on.
Facebook is a hydra-headed monster whose own CEO doesn’t seem entirely aware of the extent to which its own tentacles extend around the Web. If Mark Zuckerberg himself isn’t sure whether Facebook tracks users that don’t have an account, how are ordinary users meant to know?
What isn’t always obvious is that up until 2010, the Web had more or less remained true to its original purpose. Businesses set up eCommerce sites using tools such as WooCommerce, fan forums flourished on topics as diverse as MLB and woodworking, and personal sites could be set up on a cheap Virtual Private Server.
Asking where all this stuff went is often framed as pining for a lost, parochial era of Geocities sites and MySpace pages, but it’s more fundamental than that. The diversity of the Internet is directly tied to the success of this open approach.
Much of Facebook is built in PHP, a free software language that has been widely ported, and that can be deployed on most web servers and almost every operating system and platform, free of charge. If the Web doesn’t remain open, technologies that underpin the Web’s security, accessibility, innovation and competitiveness won’t belong to us anymore. They will belong to Facebook.
For now, no-one is preventing you from setting up your own web server. But money talks, and ISPs are already starting to offer customers subsidized plans with free access to large companies which pay them. The principle of Net Neutrality is a foundational one for the Web because it dictates that ISPs are unable to set consumers a higher price to access independent websites.
Eroding Net Neutrality would mean that there would be very little economic incentive to have a smaller website, as it would be literally inaccessible to people with an ordinary Internet connection. eCommerce retailers have already begun shifting stock towards Amazon in order to appease the aggregators.
Since 2010, when Facebook and Google really started depriving independent publishers and websites of the oxygen of search and social traffic, the independent blogosphere has withered on the vine. Less traffic an less commenting means less incentives to post, which means fewer posts. It’s hard to name a successful small blog that started in the last five years.
Back in the days of Geocities, sharing content online was an arduous affair that often involved transferring FTP files to and from a server. The first version of Blogger was FTP-based and lacked features such as web-standards compliant templates, individual archive pages for posts and posting-by-email.
Facebook’s business model is really quite simple: it removes the technical hurdle involved in publishing content online, and provides a way for people to connect with each other. It then sells ads against the content.
When the friction was removed in posting content online (remember ‘frictionless sharing’, which enabled apps to post to a users Wall without consent?), people posted an enormous amount to Facebook. Users don’t care if content is centralized or decentralized, they just want it to be easy.
Any other business that has got close to Facebook’s level of ubiquity has focused, laser-like, on making sharing simple. As recently as 2010, GigaOM predicted that the idea that apps are sharing a continuous stream of our activity will seem as commonplace and uncontroversial as the original news feed.
Whatever the solution looks like, it can’t involve a return to the days of FTP. Blockchain solutions may appeal to techno-geeks, but they are way too complicated for most people to use.
It would be easier than ever for a firm like Apple to own content distribution, storage and entry through an app. There wouldn’t be a lot of money to be made in it, but Apple doesn’t make a lot of money from supporting SMS and implementing iMessage either. But we will all benefit from an Open Web.