In an interview with The Guardian, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, said that besides government censorship and anti-piracy laws like SOPA, the biggest threat to the open internet are “walled gardens” run by Facebook and Apple.
From The Guardian:
The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he [Brin] claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.
[T]he rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.
“There’s a lot to be lost,” he said. “For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.”
Google, of course, has a vested interest in the “openness” of data on the internet. A major part of its revenue comes from AdWords, the success of which is directly dependent on the amount of information on the internet Google has access to. You can tell that Google’s worried about this when Sergey says that the data in Facebook and apps can’t be crawled.
But just like Google, a major portion of internet users also depend on the openness of the web, perhaps without realizing, by using search engines. One scenario where we think Sergey’s concerns hold great weight is when developers no longer think of the web as an important enough platform.
To better understand this, let’s take the example of Snapguide, an excellent app that lets users create and publish guides about anything at all using text, images and videos. An example of the great content that can be created using this app is this guide to solve a 3×3 Rubik’s cube. Snapguide does have a website that is searchable, but it’s easy to imagine the sad scenario in which all of this great content would be dumped in databases that could only be accessed via apps and couldn’t be discovered otherwise.
Interestingly, both the companies Sergey mentions as the biggest threats to the open internet are also the biggest threats to Google currently. Facebook, because it knows a lot about people which Google doesn’t, and Apple because many of its practices (cookies in Safari, Siri) which aren’t in the best interests of Google.
As you might have noticed in his quotes above, Sergey says that the data in apps isn’t crawlable, which we assume includes not just iOS apps but Android apps as well. Thinking more about this statement, we’re forced to conclude that Google doesn’t want the app ecosystem to thrive. It’s doing so only to better compete with other platforms. Or it’s that Google has some kind of mechanism to sniff data off apps on Android, which is very unlikely.
We do think that Brin’s concerns about threats to the freedom of communication on the internet are genuine, especially about censorship and laws like SOPA, but calling out only two companies, which happen to be the biggest threats to Google in the future, somewhat downplays the entire argument.
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