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Are Facebook and Apple Really a Threat to the Open Net?

Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently made some mildly incendiary comments to The Guardian about how companies like Facebook and Apple are a threat to the openness of the internet. In the interview, ...
Are Facebook and Apple Really a Threat to the Open Net?
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  • Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently made some mildly incendiary comments to The Guardian about how companies like Facebook and Apple are a threat to the openness of the internet. In the interview, Brin denounced the highly protected practices by the companies, which is commonly known throughout the tech industry as a walled garden, and said, “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

    Commenters and other reporters across the net decried Brin’s perceived hypocrisy, saying that Google was as guilty for depressing the same openness of the internet that it has both championed and used to become the juggernaut that it is today. Brin responded to the criticism with a post on his Google+ page, saying that, while Facebook isn’t anywhere near as threatening to digital ecosystems as “government filtering of political dissent,” he does believe that starting a new online business like eBay or Amazon or even Google in today’s environment “would entail navigating a number of new tollbooths and gatekeepers” that could potentially hinder the ability for that site to flourish. Tollbooths and gatekeepers, that is, like Facebook and Apple.

    Now that the dust has begun to settle around Brin’s statements, one of the most revered figureheads in the tech industry, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the forefathers of the internet, gave a separate interview to The Guardian (both interviews are a part of a larger series the paper’s been doing recently called “Battle for the internet”) where he seemed to echo Brin’s sentiment that walled garden-policies are a serious threat to the openness and fluidity of the internet.

    He specifically decried the habits of Apple and how only Apple-approved apps are allowed to run on iOS devices (yes, yes, there’s always jailbreaking), saying, “I should be able to pick which applications I use for managing my life, I should be able to pick which content I look at, and I should be able to pick which device I use, which company I use for supplying my internet, and I’d like those to be independent choices.” Ultimately, Berners-Lee says that the reason this practice is bad is because when those apps are walled off (as they currently are on iOS devices), they’re not searchable.

    Brin said something similar in his Guardian interview, describing how there is a lot of information that is lost due to those types of apps. “All the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers,” he explained. “You can’t search it.”

    Berners-Lee reiterated his comments about the exclusionary behaviors of Facebook and Apple from an article he penned for Scientific American in 2010 when he called for a pledge to preserve open standards and neutrality on the internet. In it, Berners-Lee expressed concern over the danger that a single “social-networking site gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.” Yet even in the shadow of Facebook, he acknowledged that sites like Diaspora and have managed to capture the interest of internet users by offering features slightly different and more desirable than what Facebook has to offer. If innovation has still found a way to seep through the cracks of Facebook’s wall, why does the site continue to get this very unearned and undeserved clout that it is some kind of internet sun-eater that will cast innovation into an endless night.

    Facebook and Apple’s respective walled gardens are, at the very least, a measure of self-preservation. It’s possible to argue that the only way a company could possibly compete with Google on the internet is by protecting itself and secluding all of its information from getting into Google’s clutches. If Facebook had not walled away the information it collects to users and kept it from being crawled by Google, then Facebook would never have achieved anything close to the success it has. Facebook had to play by a different set of rules to survive. By now, it should be clear to anyone that it’s enjoyed a bountiful survival.

    Apple, at least, is able to rely on its hardware innovation to stay competitive in the tech industry, so it forged its name via different means than Facebook did. Still, Apple’s walled garden is as barbed and rigid as they come.

    What is all that locked away information really worth, though? Why shouldn’t it be locked away? That Facebook keeps users’ information tightly sealed off from the rest of the internet is, for most intents, a good thing. My information on Facebook is a source of revenue for the site, so they’re not really likely to allow anybody else to profit off of it. It irks me that they’re profiting from the sentimental value I place in keeping up on my friends and acquaintances, but at least I know Facebook isn’t going to let go of my information all that easily, either. Ironically, Facebook protecting my information from Google is just as good for Facebook as it is for me. (Well, until the subpoenas come along, but that’s a different article for a different time.)

    Some have gone so far to argue that because Facebook does keep its users’ information behind a walled garden is why the site was such a vital communication device for opposition groups during last year’s Arab Spring. While it certainly wasn’t the only online utility to be used by protesters across various countries during the year of revolutions, Facebook was a vital one. If that content had been searchable via Google, you can hedge your bets that the oppressive regimes of Egypt and Libya would have definitely been combing through Facebook to attempt to halt the protesters’ organizing. The ending of the Arab Spring could have been delayed or, worse, altogether different.

    Google might not be able to crawl comments left on private Facebook pages – and it shouldn’t, either, since they’re presumedly private for a reason – but comments left on a page that uses the Facebook form are still able to be indexed by Google. So it’s not like Facebook isn’t sharing anything at all; it’s just choosy about what it lets go of. A little piece there, a little piece here – but Facebook isn’t going to give away the whole pie, or else what would it have for dessert?

    In the Scientific American piece, Berners-Lee ominously predicted that, should seclusionist practices embraced by sites like Facebook continue, the internet could be “broken into fragmented islands.” But why is an internet archipelago such a bad thing?

    Berners-Lee has said that he envisioned the internet as a medium through which anybody anywhere could share and access information, but in this period of what could arguably be described as an era of over-sharing, the nature of the internet has changed. True, if we’re to consider patents as part of walled gardens, then yes, I whole-heartedly concur that the practice is detrimental to the continuing human process and need to innovate new technology. Walled-garden practices are vexing for a number of reasons, but are they a risk to the openness of the net? Are they really killing innovation? Yes, if you ascribe to what Brin and Breners-Lee define as an open net. But what they’ve failed to describe is why a truly unmitigated flow of all information, all the time is still such a good thing, especially in this current incarnation of the internet when anonymity is a thing of the past.

    Another internet forefather, Vint Cerf, has previously predicted that the walled garden model is not a sustainable business model. Likening Facebook to AOL and IBM, according to CNET, Cerf has said that eventually the users’ demand to share information across services will become impossible for the social networking site to ignore, causing the company to eventually fail.

    If that happens, that happens. It becomes a natural response to Brin and Berners-Lee’s plea for a more open internet and disproves the business model of walled gardens. But Facebook just acquired Instagram, the most popular photo-sharing app, and is set for one of the most lucrative initial public offerings in history later this spring. Additionally, criticize Apple’s walled garden policy all you want, but it’s obviously working for them – the company’s on its way to becoming the most valuable business in the world. In other words, the walled garden model may no longer be the kiss of death that it once was.

    If that’s the case, are Facebook and Apple really hindering the internet and innovation by refusing to grant companies like Google access to the information of their users? With the Instagram acquisition and the continued development of apps for its OpenGraph, Facebook’s sharing a lot with other companies – just not with Google.

    Only time will tell if companies like Apple and Facebook spell the demise of a truly open internet. If that does happen, then what? Will that really be such an impossible future to deal with? Why should the internet stay so open? You should probably share your comments below.

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