Open vs. closed: What kind of internet do we want?

If you step back far enough, beyond the ever-present Facebook vs. Google (s goog) or apps vs. browser debates, what you see is a tug-of-war that has been going on ever since the internet first started to hit the mainstream: the battle of open vs. closed, between the web giants and platforms that want to control almost every aspect of your online life and the traditionally open nature of the internet. The Pew Research Center’s latest report is a glimpse into one aspect of that, with some of those surveyed saying apps are the future and others saying they are evil, and Mat Honan’s essay at Gizmodo about the “case against Google” is another aspect of the same debate — the idea that Google, once synonymous with the open internet, is now just another web giant trying to control your online life. Where does the future lie?
We’ve talked about this open vs. closed battle before at GigaOM: how the chaotic nature of the early internet turned into early “walled garden” efforts like CompuServe and America Online (s aol), which ultimately failed as the open web reasserted itself (thanks in large part to the rise of Google and other early web companies) and then more recently Facebook and Apple (s aapl) and Amazon (s amzn) have created newer versions of the walled-garden approach — where owning the relationship with users from almost every angle is the goal. Every time Facebook comes under fire for its approach to privacy, or Amazon gets criticized for wanting to own the publishing industry, or Apple is slammed for its control over apps and the iOS platform, it’s another sign of this underlying tension.

Do we need to fight for the open web or just let it evolve?

Columbia law professor and net-neutrality expert Tim Wu discussed this back-and-forth between open and closed — a battle that has also been waged in areas like the telecom industry — in his recent book The Master Switch, and other long-time internet observers such as Esther Dyson have also looked at the issue. Dyson argued in a recent essay that this tension is a kind of natural phenomenon, and that we shouldn’t get too excited about the ebbs and flows of it at any one time, but others such as the web’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee have expressed concern that we are losing some fairly fundamental freedoms with the rise of closed platforms, and that we should fight this trend as much as we can.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium.

One problem with that fight, which is highlighted by the latest Pew report and its survey of thousands of internet users (some well-known and others anonymous) is that apps and walled gardens can be very appealing from a user-centric point of view — particularly the garden is well-tended and the walls are not obvious. They make the internet easier to consume on some fundamental level, just as AOL and CompuServe did in their time. For many younger internet users in particular (and possibly some older ones as well), Facebook effectively is the internet, because it gives them everything they need: games, social contact, some information, photo browsing, etc. Others are happy to use apps on their phone for virtually everything, and barely ever use a browser.

Google is at a crossroads between open and closed

As Mat Honan suggests in his essay, Google is at a crossroads between these two visions of the internet, and has been for some time now — whether it realized it or not. It was once the upstart that disrupted search and demolished earlier giants like Yahoo and AltaVista, with a service that was so simple it consisted of just a single box into which users could type whatever they wished. Now, it is a vast empire that touches our lives in dozens of different ways through an interconnected web of services, from email and photos and calendars to videos — and all of that is being woven together with the company’s new Google+ network as a social layer, and an identity platform that connects (or chains) users to the Google platform.

At some point in the recent past, the Mountain View brass realized that owning the Web is not enough to survive. It makes sense—people are increasingly using non Web-based avenues to access the Internet, and Google would be remiss to not make a play for that business. The problem is that in branching out, Google has also abandoned its core principles and values.

The launch of “Search Plus Your World” was in some ways a defining moment for the company: it sounds like a great service, and some users undoubtedly find it to be so, since it shows personalized content from a user’s social graph (provided that social graph is connected to Google+, of course). But giving content from its own internal network preferential status in search results — even in a limited way — is still a fundamental change from Google’s previous agnostic approach to web content, one that seems almost like a breach of its initial promise to users. That’s why observers such as former Google staffer Alexander Macgillivray, now chief counsel at Twitter, said it was a “bad day for the internet” when the service was launched.
For better or worse, Google has come to the realization that in order to prosper in the current age of the social web, it has to have more hooks into what people do, and thereby more insight (theoretically) into their purchasing intent, which is what advertisers are increasingly basing their behavior on. Facebook provides this in spades — although the ultimate value of its network from an advertising or e-commerce standpoint is still very much open to debate, as I described in a recent report for GigaOM Pro (sub. required) — and this is also the territory Amazon is after, and Apple as well. Controlling the platform and every aspect of the content within it, whether it’s iOS devices or the Kindle ecosystem, is the ultimate goal.
The question we are left with, as John Battelle and other open-web supporters such as Dave Winer have argued, is “What kind of internet do we want?” And unfortunately, the answer to this question is far from obvious. Advocates of the free and unfettered internet may not want to admit it, but plenty of users don’t seem to care whether something is a walled garden or not — all they care about is whether they can get what they want when they want it, and as easily as possible. In many cases, users don’t seem to really care about privacy and other considerations either, if the services they get are appealing enough.
All of which suggests that fighting for an open web doesn’t just mean beating up on giant entities like Google and Facebook and Amazon — it means figuring out how to convince users that they should care.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Fabio Venni and Mark Strozier