Walled gardens vs. the open Web
So, Tim Berners-Lee might have a lot of facts wrong, but at least he’s right on one. Pushing everything into “walled gardens” where nobody has any kind of control, except the business owners, is a step back from privacy and individual rights — it’s trading off the commodity of belonging to “the system”, which requires accepting pretty much what is imposed on the terms of service, or making sure some of your rights as an individual are still respected. Prokofy talks about “walled gardens with governance” as being the way to go, but I think it’s an utopia — the whole point of a corporation setting up a “walled garden” is exactly to prevent governance, but instead to keep control. There are a few exceptions, of course. eBay has its faults too, but most merchants are honest because if they’re not, clients will rate them badly and alert potential customers on the forums; and eBay provides at least automatic arbitration system to try to solve the trickiest issues arising between customers and merchants. eBay’s community is not perfect, but it’s an example of a semi-walled garden where there are at least some emergent community-based governance tools in effect, and they influence the way that eBay, the corporation, defines its policies and rolls out new services. But there are not many similar examples, not even bad ones.
By contrast, the Internet model is the total opposite: by standardising protocols (and the standardisation bodies are free to join; anyone can define a new Internet protocol, all they need is enough community support), services that interoperate can compete for customers, instead of forcing them to adopt a single provider with a limited set of rules. Let’s take email as an example. Half a billion Internet users might prefer to have a Gmail account, but that doesn’t mean that Google “controls” email. If by any reason Google cancels your account, you can still send and receive email from another address; and you can even set up your own mail server and address, and, so long as you refrain from spamming, your emails will be accepted by everybody in the world. Before using Gmail I used other providers (and even self-hosted solutions), but my email address has remained the same since 2004. In fact, I use in real life an old email address since 1994, which I have never changed again — email providers come and go, but my email address is always the same. This means that I am in control of my email addresses, not Google, not my ISP, not anyone else — not even the Government!
We take this for granted because we’re so used to it. But every application we use on the Internet works pretty much the same way: freedom of choice, by giving you freedom to use whatever service provider you wish, and switch among them at will. Switching providers will not give you “limited” access. Even if Google gets angry at me and starts boycotting anything that comes from my IP address, I won’t be shut out from the Internet — or stop paying taxes to my government. I would just use another email provider. Google Chrome might not work any longer on my computer, blocked by Google, but I have plenty of choices among browsers; and if I wished, I could create my Google Chrome “clone” by simply downloading the WebKit sources and compile my own version. I might be unable to use Google search, but I’d still have Microsoft Bing to do some searches. I might have to get rid of all my YouTube videos (there are not many anyway), but I could upload them to Vimeo or Blip.tv instead. I seldom use Orkut, but if that got cancelled by Google too, I’d be happy to switch to something else (like… Facebook!). Since I can own my own domain name, with some clever DNS tricks, I could even have addresses like social.gwynethllewelyn.net, photos.gwynethllewelyn.net, or videos.gwynethllewelyn.net, and point them all to the appropriate page (in fact, I did just that 🙂 ). Of course it’s not just about Web pages and DNS addresses, but you get my point: the freedom to pick any provider according to my tastes, the price of the service, or the rules they impose on me, is mine and mine only. Having choices is great.
I have to admit that I very reluctantly joined Facebook, Twitter, Plurk, or Digg. Among all those, the only one that I use regularly is Facebook — because I enjoy some of its games. The rest I use mostly as ‘announcement’ venues: I use Ping.fm to distribute information on all social networking tools, instead of updating each and every one separately. Why? Because for most people, and that certainly includes myself, time is at a premium. It’s next to impossible to keep in touch with everything, assuming you have a reasonable amount of “friends”. So I need a one-size-fits-all solution. The irony is that I already had one which was perfectly acceptable: email. But these days, we’re all supposed to communicate asynchronously using these social networking sites, of which every week you get a handful of new ones… and with each, one shares more and more information online, in return for… what? Having to upload all your profile data again, and finding all your “friends” once more, and connect with each in turn. Of course there are now mechanisms to make this process easier… but still there will always be some ‘friends’ missing, since nobody ever registers for everything.