The Web is Dead, Long Live the Web? Or Why Google Search Should Perhaps be Nationalized

Yesterday was a day of some introspection among a certain class of geek: those of us old enough to remember the promise of the open web. Anil Dash posted his regrets that he had been wrong about its power on twitter

8 years ago I wrote about publishing to platforms like Facebook & AOL. I was naive, and wrong. http://t.co/akW8jddvtK pic.twitter.com/byoHNlFQYh
— Anil Dash (@anildash) May 13, 2015

Ev Williams said something similar today:

<script async src=”https://static.medium.com/embed.js"></script><a class=”m-story” data-collapsed=”true” href=”https://medium.com/@ev/sometimes-things-stay-stuck-a0796cc638a3">Sometimes things stay stuck</a>

Maybe the Internet had to happen, but it was a one-time disruptive event.
Maybe there’s no inevitable pendulum.
Maybe AOL losing to the Internet was just because it couldn’t scale fast enough.
Maybe we just lived through the brief anomalous period of openness and decentralization in media and communications.

The catalyst for this pessimism about the future of the open web is what many see as the capitulation to Facebook that many news organizations are making by publishing their stories directly to the Facebook platform in addition to or instead of to their own sites. This is something new, but it also isn’t. Private platforms built on top of the open internet protocols are ascendent right now. Facebook, WeChat, Instagram, etc. are what the Internet is to many people, perhaps most people across the world. And if we do not start talking about this, then they are likely to remain the Internet for the vast majority of the world.

As evidenced by articles above, at the beginning of the commercial Internet it was taken as an article of faith that the open networks and protocols that made up the Internet would prevail over alternatives such as AOL, Prodigy and MSN. Not only that, but such a result would be the moral result, the result that was best for society of a whole. And they were partially right. The closed networks went down to defeat, giving way to the Internet itself. And that opened the world to things like Amazon and Netflix and blogs that challenged the dominant media. And social networks like Facebook and platforms like WeChat that would eventually become all in one replacements for the open internet. People at the time largely felt that because open protocols and tools were superior to closed ones that they would always win. And they were right in part, but blind to the larger implications.

Because nothing in those protocols meant that a closed system couldn’t be built on top of them. It was easy to write Facebook in PHP, an open source language. WeChat can run on top of the Internet and still keep people enclosed within their walls. Tech society never looked up the stack, at what happens atop the communication protocols. Without interoperability between these systems, without an easy way for people to find information in other systems, without an easy way for people to own their data and what is done with it, closed systems built on keeping people in their walls and exploiting what they know about people are almost inevitable.

Those last points are critical. Facebook wins over blogs and web pages, for example, because it makes it easy to see content that people want to see. Discovery is a matter of opening up one web page or app. Well, and trusting Facebook. Facebook has made no secret of its desire to retain users attention by manipulating what they see on their newsfeed. Like a company page, for example, and you are not guaranteed to see all of its posts because Facebook has decided that you don’t really want to see all of its posts. And there isn’t anything you or the company in question can really do about it, short of leaving Facebook. But that means losing your data, your connections, your easy discovery — something that is much harder to do in practice than in theory.

Which leads us to the mostly tongue-in-cheek sub-title. I believe that because the questions of access, control and interoperability at the platform level did not have obvious technical solutions that the libertarian-ish tech world of the time were either blind to them or ignored them. Remember, people thought that the Internet was trans-national, its own place subject to its own laws established by social norms and untouchable by the offline world. That, needless to say, has not proven to be the case. And that utopian blindness lead to the situation we are in today.

But there are solutions to this. If discoverability is the problem, for example, then perhaps nationalizing Google Search (so that Google doesn’t control the result for their benefit) and forcing companies to display its results along side there’s is a possible solution. Perhaps not, perhaps there are better solutions or more pressing problems. I have ideas on these matters, of course, and will likely flesh them out in the future, but they are really besides the point. My point is simply that if we believe in the benefits of an open, interoperable web — and I do — then we have to stop ignoring those class of problems that have primarily social and regulatory solutions.

To steel form a better writer, we gave you an open web, if you can keep it. So far, we haven’t been able to keep it. If we want that to change, we have to step beyond the tired dogma of the early internet and start looking at the problems as societal problems, not technical ones. The open Internet is not a new country, and it is certainly no utopia. It is like every other progressive advancement: hard fought, and needing defense at every moment. If we don’t start defending it, it will be gone.

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