The internet is drowning

The internet is slowly drowning.

Don’t believe me? Try the following exercise:  attempt to create an application or site that will reach a majority of internet users without having to worry about one large company standing in your way.

Try doing that on mobile and you will find that either Google or Apple could turn off access to your app: the app store model is one that gives large amounts of control to those two companies. One could argue, however, that it does not matter since there was already a different set of companies in control prior to the rise of the app store: the telcos once had full control over what went on your phone and still have control over the pipes that deliver data to it.

Alternatively, you could go to the web, the place where the level playing field had been created but here you may have to contend with Google (or to a lesser extent Microsoft) having control over whether your web site could easily be discovered. With the death of most search engines (there were a couple dozen players in the 1990s) and the consolidation of the search market primarily in the hands of Google (for all its efforts, Microsoft only comes in second with about 20% of the market), discovery of website is substantially more difficult.

You could argue that the social web makes such worries irrelevant as companies like Facebook, Twitter, (and Google too, with Google+) provide ways to share information over their network. But create content that is not considered legal under their acceptable Terms of Services and you won’t be linked to.

 How did we get there?

For a brief period, starting in the early 1990s and ending in the late 2000s, there was a widespread belief that the internet ought to stay open, allowing anyone with a good idea to present it online and have it evaluated based on its own merit and not on the size of the wallet supporting it.

This led to an explosive era of creativity and the generation of new businesses that displaced and reshaped companies that had been running for generations. With a more level playing field, it was possibly for any good concept to get tested and presented without backing from an incumbent.

And at least one generation has grown up during that time, seeing this as the way of the world. When Mark Zuckerberg set out to create Facebook, he didn’t worry about the possibility of being shut out because it no longer existed.

Without prior knowledge of what happens in a world where power is only distributed to those who are considered worthy, the newer generations have failed to see the warning signs of a closing internet and did not demand that things remain as open as they could be.

In the past, the alternatives to the internet were equally as complicated to use and thus, there was no real advantage to going to the non-open solution as it provided little in terms of extra convenience. But over time, those who are inclined to create gateways figured out that convenience would be the key that allows to close up doors. And the open internet proponents looked at such approach with disdain, questioning its technological purity compared to the open standard.

Over time, few bothered explaining why open mattered. It just was considered enough to claim that open mattered and the public would understand. This approach led to good ideas with strong technical underpinning remaining as complex solutions that worked great for the net and for people with a high level of knowledge about the internet but failed in the face of easier and more locked down solutions.

Thus Twitter (easier) became the way to share news, compared to RSS (more open);  Facebook (easier) became the place where people shared their lives with friends, as opposed to blogs (more open); native apps (easier) won out over web apps (more open).

And with every turn, the web became less relevant.

Why does it matter?

But why does it matter? In order to understand, one needs to go back to those early days before the web.

Before the web, there were a few online services. One of them was called AOL (easier) but charged access by the hour: so anyone who wanted to spend time chatting with friends had to give money to that AOL service. Then some people discovered that you could do the same thing over the internet but instead of paying by the hour, you would pay a flat monthly fee (more convenient).

That convenience is what helped the internet grown and because the internet was not run by a company (unlike online services like AOL), anyone from Jeff Bezos to Sergey Brin or Marc Andreessen could go and set up a site or distribute an app, safe in the knowledge that there really was no way to block access to it.

But if we let convenience blind us to the fact that things could get locked up, we could be denying future generation a chance to build the next great businesses. And in doing so, we could be denying ourselves a chance to support great advances in the way not only business runs but also in the way our society operates.

For 20 years the internet has been open and it is slowly drowning to death. Will you just stand by and let it die or will you dive in and help it out?

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