The Web is No Longer Open

“So it can benefit everyone.”

That’s what a Google employee said today as he tried to explain Google’s recent push to have websites use the ‘rel=”me”‘ meta HTML tags to identify pages a user owns on the web.  It’s not a bad strategy – index the entire web, know every single website out there, and when they change, and now the web is your network.  The thing is, since the “open” web hasn’t had a natural way of identifying websites owned by users, Google, the current controller of this network, needed a way to do it.  Why not make people identify their websites to Google’s SocialGraph network, and call it “open” so it benefits everyone?  I’m sorry, but the “open” web that we all grew up in is dead now that 2 or 3 entities have indexed it all.  This is now their network.

Let’s contrast that to Facebook, the “Walled Garden”, criticized for being closed due to tight privacy controls and not willing to open up to the outside web.  Of course, all that is a myth – Facebook too has provided ways for website owners to identify themselves to Facebook on the “open” web, making Facebook itself the controller of that social graph data, thereby giving Facebook a new role in who “owns” the “open” web.  Facebook has even made known in its developer roadmap its intention to build an “OpenGraph API”, making every website owner’s site a Facebook Fan Page in the Facebook network.  Don’t kid yourself that Facebook wants a role in this as well.  They’re a major threat to Google, too because of this.

Then there’s Twitter, just starting to realize how to play in this game, now starting to collect user data for search in their own network.  Don’t count them out just yet, as they too will soon be trying to find ways to get you to identify your website on their network.

So we’ll soon have 3 ways of identifying our websites on the “open” web.  I can identify my site through Facebook, as you see by the Facebook Connect login buttons scattered around.  I can identify myself in the Google SocialGraph APIs, which, if you view the source of this site you’ll see a ‘rel=”me”‘ meta tag identifying my site so Google can search it.  Who knows what Twitter will provide to bring my site into its network.  Each network is providing its easiest ways of identifying your site within their own Social Graph, and calling it “open” so other developers can bring their stuff into their networks easily, without rewriting code.

I think it’s time we stop tricking ourselves into thinking the web is open at all.  Google is in control of the web – they have it all indexed.  Now that we are seeing that he who owns the Social Graph has a new way of controlling and indexing the web, which we are seeing by Facebook’s massive growth (400+ million users!), I think Google feels threatened.  They’ll play every “open” term in the book to gain that control back.  Of course the new meta tags are beneficial – is it really beneficial to “everybody” though?  I argue the one entity it benefits most is Google.  Yeah, it benefits developers if we can get everyone to agree on what “open” is, but that will never happen.  I think it’s time we accept that now that the web is controlled and indexed by only a few large corporations, it is far from “open”.  “Open” is nothing more than a marketing term, and I think we can thank Google for that.  No, that’s not a bad thing – it’s just reality.

Do these technologies really “benefit everyone” when no other search startup has a remote chance of competing with owning the “open web” network?

Further note:

How do we solve this?  I truly believe the only solution to giving the user control of the web again is via client-side, truly user-controlled technologies like what Kynetx offers.  Action Cards, Information Cards, Selectors, and browser-side technologies that bring context back in the user’s hands are the only way we’re going to make the web “open” again.  The future will be the battle for the client – I hope the user wins that battle.

Image courtesy Leo Reynolds

UPDATE: DeWitt Clinton of Google, who wrote the quote above this post is in response to, issued his own response here.  The comments there are interesting, albeit a lot of current and former Google employees trying to defend their case.  I still hold that no matter what Google does now, due to the size of their index, any promotion of the “open web” is still to their benefit.  I don’t think Google should be denying that.

UPDATE 2: My response to DeWitt’s response is here – why didn’t Google just clone Facebook’s APIs if their intention was to benefit the developer and end-user?


25 thoughts on “The Web is No Longer Open

  1. I can't help but think, though, that we could be so lucky if our other industries, i.e, telecom, insurance, finance, energy, had this same problem as web services, for, though, Google and Facebook, indeed my be “monopolies” you can't argue that at least they are earned monopolies, and thereby had to innovate to get there and continue to innovate to stay there. Earned monopolies give benefit to society. The reason Capitalism works is because in a free market, the benefit to society that a successful company gives is inversely proportional to its market cap.

    Contrast that to the connectivity industry or insurance industry where corporations such as Comcast and Blue Cross gain their monopolies by writing laws that protect them from competition. No innovation, higher prices, less benefit to the consumer.

    And in web services (and I would argue in all industries that it should also be the case) there's no need for 'regulation' for if a web company screws up or doesn't innovate (AOL, Myspace) they go away. Twitter, Facebook, and Google, know there's nothing protecting them but there own innovation.

    The truth is, anyone can start a search engine or a social network. There's no artificial barrier to entry. But is that really what you want to do with your life, run a search engine or a social network? Doesn't sound like too much fun to me. But for someone who was passionate about such an endeavor, and not in it only for the money, they would succeed, and potentially even threaten the 'big boys' mentioned here.

    But the difference is FB, Google, and Twitter are doing it. It's like how people always say, “Oh anyone can do what Leo laporte is doing.” Sure they can! But he is the only one who seems to actually be doing it, at least to the degree and passion he's doing it in.

    So I'd say, as long as there are no artificial barriers to entry, that its a level playing field, then the web is still and will always be 'open' And the beauty of a free market is the benefits of the communications revolution we're living in. Where credibility is earned. If only all parts of our economy and society had such problems! We'd be living a cornucopia life indeed!


  2. Interesting take Jesse, I dig your perspective on open, and what it means to different organizations.

    My full comment on Buzz (it belongs here as well):
    Mark Essel – Great 3:30am thread! Glad this hotel bed is hard as a rock and the pillow stinks now.

    If owning the web comes down to knowing what's in it Jesse, it's not a stretch to create a decentralized index. Trusted distributed crawling 🙂
    While we rely on massive datacenters (Goog, Bing, etc) and web crawling bots now, there will come a time when each node will be part of layers
    of distributed indexes based on privacy/ownership. Any attempts to restrict information flow simply get routed around, and most of the revenue generated from web businesses has a short lifetime (decade/two tops?). I predicted the end of big social centralized services within ten years. The same forces that enable all of us to own our own social data (and lease it out to our favor) are the same that will enable all of us to own our own content (and lease it out to our benefit). Sharing all of my data publicly is of course my choice and then it's “fair game” to remote entities to use.

    Social is already implemented with protocols like Push over open source StatusNet. I see that users can subscribe to public Buzz feeds with Pus, this is a great beginning. 

    As developers we want clear standards, but defacto standards generated without external collaboration usually benefit the parent organization over others. For me social simplifies as one to one, one to many, and many to many relationships. Knowledge of the data index for the web is a one to many relationship today, I suspect that won't be so for long.


  3. Stephen, yes, I'm not even saying where we are is a bad thing. It may not
    be *best* for the user, but it's certainly not bad. I just don't want to
    trick ourselves into thinking the web is *truly* open when the only people
    that own the index to it are 3 companies right now. Google seems to want us
    to think that.


  4. Hey Jesse,

    In reply to your comment above, promotion of an open web is very much to our (and to the web's, and to the user's!) benefit. Not only do we not deny that, we say that all the time. : )




  5. I'm really confused about what you'd consider open.

    As far as I'm concerned, Google's approach with the Social Graph really *is* open. Theirs is the only way that another entity could use to assemble the same index, without relying on any company's proprietary tech. And, if you don't feel like building a web indexer, you can hit the Google Social Graph API to query what they've spidered.

    I'm not following you from Google indexing the web to Google controlling the web, not when they're encouraging a standard that grants everyone the same indexing opportunity. You could even map the social graph using client side tools and skip Google altogether. You own your metadata on your own site, as opposed to a Facebook or Twitter account that can be pulled out from under you by those same respective entities.

    It sounds like your only argument is that they're big, so they're bad. Well, the web is big; how else would you propose that it gets indexed? Just because open plays benefit Google doesn't mean they're not good for the open web – they've structured themselves to benefit from an open web, and so it follows that they'd try to help grow an open web.

    The fundamental difference here, though, is that they way the methods they used to get big can be employed by anyone else with enough resources to throw at the data. A startup *could* compete with Google using these Social Graph standards, if they could find an angle Google didn't already have covered.


  6. I don't see anywhere in this post saying Google's big, so they're bad. I
    haven't said anyone's bad. It doesn't matter what I consider “open”. It
    does matter that Google be honest about who these “open” changes (in their
    view) really benefit. They do them because they benefit Google more than
    anything else. And yes, Google does have control of the “open” web right
    now since they have the biggest index and best ways of accessing that index
    – it's pretty hard to compete with that. This is Google's web now.


  7. […] Jesse Stay writes about the term ”open” now is nothing more than a marketing term, and that it is not a bad thing, just reality. I’m not sure whether or not it is all good or all bad, but it is for sure not all that common to have any one company dominate a market in this way, offline that is. […]


  8. Hey Jesse,

    In reply to your comment above, promotion of an open web is very much to our (and to the web's, and to the user's!) benefit. Not only do we not deny that, we say that all the time. : )




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