The Concentration of Web Power

January 17, 2017

In the early days of the Web (and the Internet in general), there was a believe that it was a different kind of system. Distributedly anarchistic, that is, the was no central authority. No one organisation owned…or could own the whole network. Oh we worried about some centralising tendencies…browser makers had a lot of power. DNS is pretty centrally controlled. But the decentralised, distributed nature was also supposed to be resilient against various sorts of attack, including attempts to control it. The internet “routes around damage”, including control freaks. The contrast class were closed “walled gardens” like Compuserve and AOL. These were behemoths of online activity until they were crushed by open systems. Internet systems just scaled better because they were open and decentralised…so the story went.

But the world has changed. While we have more online activity than ever before, the capability for single organisations to control it all has also increased. Many organisations (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon to name a few) have the technical wherewithal and economic resources to build a global infrastructure that could handle the traffic of the current Web. (More orgs could do it if we reuse the current communication infrastructure. Google experiments notwithstanding, it would be a heavy lift for them to build out broadband and cell towers across the globe. These organisations could, of course, buy mobile carriers and backbone providers…)

Furthermore, governments have been rather effective in controlling the internet, cf China. The ability to route around such breakage on a mass scale is proving fairly limited.

As a result, power is getting increasingly concentrated in the online world (which, given the economic gains, is translating to power everywhere). We are pretty close to the Compuserve/AOL walled garden world. Even nominally distinct organisations rely heavily on the same high level infrastructure, which is why you see the same awful ads everywhere.

Google seems to be trying hardest for vertical integration. They push Chrome relentlessly and that lets them play with protocols specific to Chrome and their servers. Sure, they generally push them toward standards…but this is a new capability. Facebook tried this a bit (Facebook phone anyone?) but didn’t do so well. Mobile apps make this true for everyone.

Strangely we’re getting some refragmented experiences. I was trying to debug Zoe‘s new YouTube Channel (a bad experience, to be sure) and some things were different in the iPad app than on the website. Fine fine. I mean, terrible, but ok. But I tried to debug it on my iPad and I could not open the YouTube website in a browser. It forced me into the app with no other options (“Open in YouTube App? Ok. Cancel.” where “Cancel” means don’t open the page!). (Ok, I eventually “googled” how to modify the URL (from “www.” to “m.”) to make it work but holy hell that was wrong.) I was trying to share a page from the Guardian and got stuck in AMP hell. I could not get rid of the AMP/Google URL to get to the Guardian one (without string hacking).

That AMP page sure loaded fast…

…but the URL, server, connection all belong to Google.

It is interesting that mass phenomena are easier to control that small scale ones, in some respects. There’s more money available and most people are not very technical sophisticated. Hell, I’m not. I don’t want to be. I leave a lot of things broken because while I could suss it out, I just don’t have the time or energy to fight through all the nonsense. (And there is a ton of a ton of nonsense.)

So, this is the world we live in. The problem is that the big players will never stumble and fall…they might! Yahoo died. If Facebook dies (depending on how it does) it will be traumatic. If Google dies (depending on how it does), it will be very bad. But, these are probably survivable in most scenarios. They’ll degrade slowly and other big players will grab some and some new players will get big.

However, it’s hard to see how it won’t be big players from here on out.

Update:

Ruben Verborgh has a related discussion. My quick hit on the key difference is that Ruben isn’t focused on the centralisation and web architectural aspects, but on, roughly, publishers vs. consumers. A world where every site has a preferred app and directs you to it is still (potentially) a decentralised and distributed one. He’s more focused on a different sort of power, i.e., the power of individual site owners over their viewers. Now, obviously, this is related to the concentration of power I focused on since one of the bad things an “owner of the web” can do is exploit the rest of us in a myriad of ways. But I think it’s important to note that concentration and centralisation have not been “app” driven. Network effects (plus quality!) seem sufficient to explain the rise of Google and Apple. Facebook and Twitter rose by network effects alone, I’d say. Once you have a ton of cash and a big user base, you can exploit those in a variety of ways to gain more power. Though this isn’t trivial, witness Google’s persistent failures in social (Google+!?).

Kyle Schreiber writes about AMP lock in (via Daring Fireball):

Make no mistake. AMP is about lock-in for Google. AMP is meant to keep publishers tied to Google. Clicking on an AMP link feels like you never even leave the search page, and links to AMP content are displayed prominently in Google’s news carousel. This is their response to similar formats from both Facebook and Apple, both of which are designed to keep users within their respective ecosystems. However, Google’s implementation of AMP is more broad and far reaching than the Apple and Facebook equivalents. Google’s implementation of AMP is on the open web and isn’t limited to just an app like Facebook or Apple.

AMP (and other URL/browser behavior hijackings like search result URLs) is extra offensive because it hits deep into the working of the Web. But if we all end up living in Facebook all the time, it won’t matter if the URLs “look” independent.

Note that I  host my blog on WordPress, for “free.” WordPress is a pretty popular Content Management System with an ecosystem that is hard to rival. But the results are pretty vanilla Web. WordPress.com itself isn’t super dominant and it’s very easy to break free. There seems to be a material difference in the situations.

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