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Five Essays on the Open Web – Post 3 – Andrew Goodman

Posted November 24th, 2010 by Andrew Goodman

Continuing our five-part series celebrating Tim Berners-Lee’s Scientific American essay, with some thoughts from yours truly.

Andrew Goodman:

People Don’t Want to Live in Burma

Tourism isn’t booming in Burma: many think it might be unethical to enjoy paradise at the invitation of a military dictatorship. Or possibly you’d be worried that you’d be spied on constantly, or kicked out. That’s what happened to this travel journalist the first time he went there, yet he’s still writing a feature on Burmese travel, and as a result of the feature, people are still going to go there.

I’ve been to resorts in Cuba several times; something many Canadians do in winter – it’s a short flight and great value for a four-star experience. But yes, I’ve heard that there are downsides to the regime there; foremost among them a decided lack of multiparty democracy and other basic political freedoms. I’m not immune to hypocrisy; no one is.

Aldous Huxley famously taught us that it is not the point of the gun that we should fear most; it’s the insidious slide into acceptance of compromises that come with comfort and shiny objects. Luxury and convenience at prices anyone can afford are the Huxleyan drug of our age.

Don’t be distracted by pea-shooter would-be dictators in government – like the 19 goofs in the Senate who voted to censor the Internet (including some Democrats who, for their stance on this issue, can no longer be thought of as liberals).

There are serious threats to freedom that run deeper than this. And many of them could come from the private companies that seek to become synonymous with their own proprietary, next-generation visions of communications networks.

Internet Protocol, and the open interface protocol that sits on top of it – the World Wide Web – are often considered to coexist with technological and communications freedom. If these standards are upheld – and if access to the network is maintained on a level playing field – there is much more likelihood that our daily interactions as well as our commercial aspirations can be contemplated without fear of reprisal or restriction from any major public or private sector behemoth.

The problem is, a dozen or fewer major technology companies seem bent on warping this relatively open environment for their own private ends. Companies like Apple are accused (by direct competitors, natch) of not liking “The Web”. They certainly won’t let Flash run on their device.

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are also all enormously powerful, and most of them seem to prefer, in some contexts, a restrictive, walled garden environment that hurts their competitors and helps them to better lock you in. In other cases, they advocate openness.

In more nooks and crannies of their product array than I can remember, I’ve given a small cheer when Google adopts or advocates some aspect of open standards, like microformats, Sitemaps.org, or Android. And I get a darker feeling of them being The New Boss, Same as the Old Boss, in the way they deploy things like Google Places, Universal Search (also known as: “if you’re not on YouTube, you’re dead”), and yes, even Google News.

The power of the top few monopolists in the field is not to be underestimated. Facebook’s total current grip on the social graph equates to them knowing everything about you and everyone you know. Google’s Street View, carried to its logical conclusion in concert with Facebook and Foursquare, amounts to a one-sided, total surveillance society that far surpasses what 18th-century dystopians mapped out when they described simple prison architecture and watch-tower technology.

Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” Facebook’s is: “to give people the power to share, and to make the world more open and connected.”

  1. Do you have to believe them?
  2. Why them?
  3. Why are you letting them monopolize that?

In a way it’s just a lucky accident that Facebook and Apple, and still Microsoft, are strong enough to stand up to Google, and vice-versa.

As when we launched Traffick.com in 1999, there are five or six would-be monopolists duking it out – not one or two. It’s important to recognize that Google wasn’t seen as one of them at the time (it was a startup), and Apple was still a fallen giant, and a laughingstock to some.

Maybe it’s just luck, then, but as long as there are these dueling elites, and a citizenry paranoid enough to mix their allegiances based on a “single overlord adoption threshold,” we may be fine.

Berners-Lee is right to remind us that our consumer and ecosystem voices must continue to refer to the institutional power of open standards. This is a powerfully idealistic language that harkens back to the language of “classic republicanism” upon which nations like France and America hurtled (wildly unrealistically) into the modern world.

In the world of government, a practical way of ensuring that – for example – we don’t remove people’s freedoms in the name of an arbitrarily-declared “more important freedom,” is to build checks and balances. We need to take the same attitude with our private sector “organizers and empowerers”.

Like it or not, technological protocols like the World Wide Web serve as our protective, constitution-like institutions.

A well-rounded approach to hard questions like “Is Cloud Computing Safer in Canada?” is at least accessible to educated, tech-savvy readers. Although they certainly have vested interests in helping businesses study these issues in a way that keeps their own brand name involved, companies like Google have at least made some effort to foster the spread of relevant, third-party information so that savvy people can stay on top of both opportunities and threats.

Unfortunately, the average commercial user of the Internet may be unaware that they’ve entered a world called the “cloud,” which may be far less “safe” than they assume.

Or is it quite that? If Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have their way with us (consumers, rank and file business owners), the “cloud” will be mainstream. And from the standpoint of sheer obviousness, maybe it’s time to be thankful that their nine-figure persuasion budgets will finally railroad holdouts in my family and professional circle, so I don’t have to do all this cloud-education myself.

But there is a Huxleyan quality to what is “easy and convenient and cute”, isn’t there? The purpose of cute and easy is to make you forget that there are tradeoffs.

But then again, you’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard dark warnings about the cloud, on the other hand. Media battling media; The Social Network – hardly a flattering profile of Facebook – is killing it at the box office. With worldwide box office at $175 million and counting, these are revenues that Facebook itself might take time out to count.

Also working in our favor is that Microsoft’s advertising is (with the exception of the Bing ads) generally laughably mainstream and stale. No one buys in because it isn’t cool. The latest effort – “To the Cloud,” takes the “to the Batpoles” metaphor and a possibly amusing Monty Burns sensibility, and dilutes it to the point of unrecognizability, personifying it in drab, unentrepreneurial “Startup” people seated around an exposed-brick co-working-looking facility; or a Mom trying to share photos with family. At least there is no danger of this vaguely derivative message attracting any copyright lawsuits. There is no danger of entertaining anyone, either.

So, if Microsoft and Facebook are so famously heavy-handed and transparently pushy that our spidey senses will generally be well honed to be sufficiently suspicious of their motives and omnipotent presence… probably what it means is the folks you really have to watch out for still work at Google and Apple.

Google News still notes pedantically at the bottom of the page: “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.”

  1. Do you have to believe them?
  2. Why them?
  3. Why are you letting them monopolize that?

The real value and straight narrative of “better, easier, unbiased, fast” are all important values in the creation of the tools we use every day, of course. But when the meta-narrative is “hey, we’re just making the world a better, unbiased place to live, so why the push-back?,” the purpose may be to quietly win you over to a larger mission you didn’t consciously sign up for: giving up too much of your privacy, losing consumer choice, etc.

Not so long ago, AOL’s “walled garden approach” was running neck-and-neck against this quaint thing we called the “Web.”

What happened? As it turned out, people didn’t want to live in Burma.

What about this time around?

Andrew Goodman remains Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com. He is founder and president of search marketing agency Page Zero Media, author of Winning Results with Google AdWords, and co-founded HomeStars.com, a consumer review site.



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