Can We Save the Open Web? [March 17, 2016]
By Dries Buytaert
The Web felt very different 15 years ago, when I founded Drupal, an open source tool for building websites. Just 7 percent of the population had Internet access, there were only around 20 million websites, and Google was a small, private company. Facebook, Twitter, and other household tech names were years away from being founded. In these early days, the Web felt like a free space that belonged to everyone. No one company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. This is what I call the "open Web."
But the Internet has changed drastically over the last decade. It’s become a more closed Web. Rather than a decentralized and open landscape, many people today primarily interact with a handful of large platform companies online, such as Google or Facebook. To many users, Facebook and Google aren’t part of the Internet—they are the Internet.
I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open Web. While the closed Web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of ethical questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences. And, as people generate data from more and more devices and interactions, this lack of control could get very personal, very quickly, without anyone’s consent. So I’ve thought through a few potential ideas to bring back the good things about the open Web. These ideas are by no means comprehensive; I believe we need to try a variety of approaches before we find one that really works.
It’s undeniable that companies like Google and Facebook have made the Web much easier to use and helped bring billions online. They’ve provided a forum for people to connect and share information, and they’ve had a huge impact on human rights and civil liberties. These are many things for which we should applaud them.
But their scale is also concerning. For example, Chinese messaging service Wechat (which is somewhat like Twitter) recently used its popularity to limit market choice. The company banned access to Uber to drive more business to their own ride-hailing service. Meanwhile, Facebook engineered limited web access in developing economies with its Free Basics service. Touted in India and other emerging markets as a solution to help underserved citizens come online, Free Basics allows viewers access to only a handful of pre-approved websites (including, of course, Facebook). India recently banned Free Basics and similar services, claiming that these restricted Web offerings violated the essential rules of net neutrality.