How the Internet Became a Closed Shop (and why it won’t stay that way)

“It’s important to remember that if you aren’t paying to use a product, then you are the product”

Someday the Internet will return to its roots — full of peer-to-peer systems that spread data over thousands of systems owned by different people. But to get there it has to understand why the decentralization of the early architecture gave way to the walled gardens so many people play in today.

I blame Napster. In a world of “free anything but make it painfully clear the person is the product” stumbles of early Internet marketing, Napster did what you actually wanted. Instead of trying to find something from among a dozen different places (half of which might not be working at any given time), there was one software program you opened, one place to put your search query, and one window where the results came back. Then you clicked and lo! the first track of the Star Wars Christmas Special was corroding away the coating on your hard drive in under an hour.

For a few years, Napster was all you needed. Then the predators came. For Napster, it was the music industry. All of a sudden, the centralized database that was Napster’s greatest strength became its greatest weakness. The lawyers ordered the switch flipped, and away Napster went.

Supply-and-demand being what it is, though, some clever types figured out how to deal with those predators. A few years of legal and technical Darwinism later, and now BitTorrent is responsible for something like half (!) of all Internet traffic worldwide.

Thing is, it’s something like a fundamental law of the universe that everything has predators. The juicy, visible things find out sooner, sure: I suppose that makes file-sharers the impalas of the Internet. But it’s inevitable that something will challenge anything else eventually — just ask the Roman Empire, the “too big to fail,” or the ex-kakapos of New Zealand.

If the “Napster and kakapos” theory holds, I suspect we’ll see something similar happen to the dueling walled-gardens of today. That’s a good thing for the rest of us: BitTorrent ended up being a lot better for everyone involved (even the music industry still got to sue people). There’s another fundamental law: the successful new solution must be better than the old, because that’s all it’s got.

Also, mind-reading animatronic cat ears:

“A LITTLE over a decade ago, just before the masses discovered the digital universe, the internet was a borderless new frontier: a terra nullius to be populated by individuals, groups and programmers as they saw fit. There were few rules and no boundaries. Freedom and open standards, sharing information for the greater good was the ethos.

Today, the open internet we once knew is fracturing into a series of gated communities or fiefdoms controlled by giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and to a lesser extent Microsoft. A billion-dollar battle conducted in walled cities where companies try to lock our consumption into their vision of the internet.[…]

”It’s important to remember that if you aren’t paying to use a product, then you are the product; your data is being sold to advertisers who are paying,” says Ryan Junee, technologist, investor and founder of fashion recommendation app Inporia.[…]

”It is like trusting the financial services houses in the GFC to do the right thing,” Zanich said. ”We know now they were betting both sides of the deal, manipulating the consumers and the market to their own gain, but they told us it was about us, their customers.[…]

Apple users, for instance, are increasingly locked in. Once you’ve bought your apps, music and movies from the iTunes store and have your content and contacts backed up in the iCloud, you’re far less likely to switch.

The same goes for Google’s Android with its Play store and tight integration with Google services like Gmail, Google+ and Google Drive. Google is now even beginning to control the pipes the content is delivered on with its Google Fiber network in parts of the US.

For Google […] anything that has the potential to get in front of its search engine is a risk, says Matt Farnell, co-founder of app analytics firm Appsperse, which is why it developed things like Android and the Chrome web browser and distributed them widely for free.”

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