Is the Internet Becoming Less Open?

    April 24, 2012

Although the issue of Web openness has been mostly quiet of late, it was revived after Google’s Sergey Brin made some powerful statements to the Guardian. According to him, the freedom of the Internet is under a greater threat than it has ever been before.

“I am more worried than I have been in the past,” he tells the Guardian. “It’s scary.”

Brin also indicated that he and fellow Google co-founder Larry Page would not be able to build their search engine in the current Internet environment given restrictive players such as Facebook. He categorized both Facebook and Apple as “walled gardens” saying they have too many limitations within their services.

As one can imagine, Brin’s statements have gained a considerable amount of criticism. What’s more, his perspective has also reignited the debate over what true openness actually is and what real threats lie with it.

How do you define a truly open Internet? We’d love to know.

The Web quickly responded to Brin’s interview with numerous claims of Google being hypocritical. Bobbie Johnson on GigaOM compiled a comprehensive piece on the Web’s reaction including statements from Dave Winer, Andrew Keen, and others.

Rebecca Lieb, analyst with the Altimeter Group WebProNews spoke with Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with the Altimeter Group and who is also veteran in the search industry, about the matter and she told us that Brin lumped two very different types of openness together. As she explained, the one side of openness covers government censorships and restrictions in regimes such as China and the Middle East. The other side of Web openness, she continued, is Web-specific and deals with “walled gardens.”

“It’s disingenuous to put the two in the same basket, which is what Brin is doing,” she said. “One is a very, very important social and political discussion; the other is a business discussion.”

The most recent threat to Internet freedom or net neutrality has been in regards to telecommunications’ companies hampering with Web access. While it is real and should be addressed, Lieb told us that there are other threats, including Brin’s concerns, that exist as well. However, she believes they are all on various levels of importance and should, therefore, be handled differently.

“There are threats to free and open Internet access through business, through governments, through anti-democratic means, but they can’t really all be lumped in one basket,” she said.

On the business side of the threat and in reference to the “walled gardens” that Brin mentioned, Lieb told us that his point would have been clearer if he had not mentioned direct competitors to Google. Even though he raised some legitimate points in this regard, she said she would have liked to see him take his argument outside of potential business threats to Google.

In addition, his bringing Google’s competitors to the table make it easier for his stance to come under attack, especially in light of recent actions from the search giant. For example, in Matt Cutts‘ latest video, he reminds people how Google may remove or demote a website.

“We do reserve the right to take action, whether it be demotion or removal, and we think we have to apply our best judgment,” said Cutts.

Here’s his complete video:

Another example is when Google announced that it was beginning to encrypt searches when users are logged into This move, as Lieb explained, limits the openness that people once had since Google no longer shares the keyword referral data with those who don’t advertise on Google.

As evidenced in the below piece that WPN did last year when the news transpired, the overall consensus from the SEO community, including Lieb, was that this move was evil:

After these and other issues were raised, Brin spoke out on his Google+ account and said his words were taken out of context calling the Guardian report a “short summary of a long discussion.” He clarified that he did not think the openness of digital ecosystems was “on par” with government censorship of the Web.

Also, to address the comments made specifically about Google’s own practices, Brin wrote:

“So what was my concern and what about Google for that matter?
I became an entrepreneur during the 90’s, the boom time of what you might now call Web 1.0. Yahoo created a directory of all the sites they could find without asking anyone for permission. Ebay quickly became the largest auction company in the world without having to pay a portion of revenue to any ISP. Paypal became the most successful payment company and Amazon soared in e-commerce also without such tolls or any particular company’s permission. 

Today, starting such a service would entail navigating a number of new tollbooths and gatekeepers. If you are interested in this issue I recommend you read by +Jonathan Zittrain. While openness is a core value at Google, there are a number of areas where we can improve too (as the book outlines).

But regardless of how you feel about digital ecosystems or about Google, please do not take the free and open internet for granted from government intervention. To the extent that free flow of information threatens the powerful, those in power will seek to suppress it.”

Lieb agrees with Brin in that she believes the real concerns and threats to Internet freedom lie in anti-net neutrality and the government regimes that block Internet access. Furthermore, the oppression in the Middle East and other regions over the past couple of years only solidifies what an important role the Internet plays in staying connected to the world.

“The business threats posed by a Facebook or a Bing, or even a Google or a Apple, are small potatoes compared to really anti-democratic Internet threats such as those posed by anti-net neutrality or the governments in oppressive or non-democratic regimes worldwide,” she said.

She went on to say that more lobbying needs to happen in Washington to raise awareness of these very real threats.

Do you think the “open Web” is at risk? If so, what are the real threats you see? Please share.