The openness of the Internet is under threat from Facebook and Apple, and government control, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, claiming the U.S. could turn into China or Iran. But is it really that bad?
“Very powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all sides and around the world,” Brin said in an interview with the Guardian. “I am more worried than I have been in the past — it’s scary.”
Brin claims the threat to Internet freedom comes down to a rise of “walled gardens,” or tightly controlled environments, such as Facebook and Apple, that dictate what users experience, as well as countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which censor and restrict Internet use.
There are trade-offs, of course. And companies like Apple and Facebook often say controlling the user experience ensures a higher level of quality — giving consumers something often don’t often know they want. A “clean” interface imposes order, often at the cost of openness. But the Orwellian endgame Brin suggests is far from certain.
For one, consumers still have a choice — a choice to buy Apple products, or a choice to use Facebook. And at any time either company’s walled gardens become too restrictive, customers will flock to new challengers — like they did to Microsoft decades ago, and like they did from MySpace, and what they’re doing now with Pinterest.
Competition, the greatest equalizer, often determines what’s best for consumers — provided they have a choice. Government restrictions, however, threaten that choice. And unlike walled gardens, regulations are a real concern — partly due to the loss of choice by citizens, but effectively forcing them to use the accepted standard, which leads to stifled innovation and web technologies.
“We push back a lot; we are able to turn down a lot of [government] requests [for data]. We do everything possible to protect the data,” Brin added. “If we could be in some magical jurisdiction that everyone in the world trusted, that would be great… we’re doing it as well as can be done.”
“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,” he said. “Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”
Supporting Google’s open platforms isn’t the answer to innovation. And as long as consumers have a choice, there will be a better Internet, whether that means open or not. But government restrictions, and to a smaller effect, monopolistic tactics, will stunt growth.
“A related danger is that one social-networking site — or one search engine or one browser — gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation,” Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Internet, once said, “As has been the case since the Web began, continued grassroots innovation may be the best check and balance against any one company or government that tries to undermine universality.”
Those are the real dangers.