Free is the death of the open Web and privacy is the sacrificial offering

Parchman Penal Farm. View of Afican American female prison inmates standing beside slaughtered hogs.

This article was originally published on MarkLives in my TechLaw columnon 28 November 2013.

Our insistence on having access to free services such as Facebook or Twitter both heralds the death of the open Web and, at the same time, has given rise to most of the online privacy-related controversies in recent years.

The problem with free services is that they have to make money in some way or another and the way that they generally do this is through advertising which leverages our personal information in order to give some kind of value to their advertisers. We agree to this when we sign up for these services. The extent of our agreement is documented in privacy policies which few people read and truly consider.

What this means is that we are essentially trading information about ourselves for access to these services which, admittedly, we do see value in otherwise we wouldn’t use them quite so much.

What happens in the meantime is that these free services find themselves having to extract more and more value from us using our personal information by tailoring their infrastructure to take more advantage of our preferences, relationships and data. What this means for consumers is that the respective for consumer privacy often takes a back seat to extracting more value from prices for advertisers.

Public pressure on these free services, typically reputational harm, is what keeps them relatively honest and often attracts regulatory oversight in the interests of preserving consumers’ rights and protecting their privacy.

Despite this, most of the privacy controversies on the social Web emerge from at the intersection of a need to establish a sustainable and profitable revenue model while, at the same time, maintaining some degree of respect for consumers privacy rights in order to secure users’ trust in these services. Google has been particularly vocal about the importance it places on users’ trust as an incentive to “do no evil”.

An emerging trend is that social services become more closed and limit interoperability with other services. The idea being to ensure that users spend more and more of their time in investing more and more of themselves in these services to maximise value. A consequence of this is markedly less emphasis on open standards supporting an open, interoperable Web and that, on the whole, is enormously detrimental to this idea of an open Web where people can engage with each other across multiple platforms and services.

One area where we are seeing this happening again is in the instant messaging or chat space which has seen a resurgence of interest, likely because this is where younger users seem to be heading as the platform for their preferred social experience. Facebook and Google have developed mobile messaging services (Messenger and Hangouts, respectively) partly to compete with enormously popular mobile-based messaging services like WhatsApp and, more recently, WeChat. Unfortunately these services are largely not compatible or interoperable with each other.

What is happening with these chat/messaging services echoes of what happened originally with email services in the Internet’s distant past. Back then if you were using one email provider you typically couldn’t send an email to a user using another email provider because each email service ran on proprietary and incompatible platforms. This eventually changed with the adoption of open standards facilitating the distribution of email across different service providers and enormously enhanced the value of the email as a primary communication method which we all rely on today.

Despite open messaging protocols like XMPP (formerly Jabber) which enable providers to create interoperable messaging products, the current generation of messaging services are following defunct proprietary models that once crippled email. Even Google, which baked XMPP into its Google Talk service has abandoned XMPP in favour of its proprietary Hangouts service which has replaced Google Talk as Google’s primary chat service. Facebook’s Messenger, at one point, supported XMPP (and may still) but Facebook’s emphasis (like Google, Apple, WhatsApp, WeChat and others) is to entice users to switch to its platform as their primary chat service. Chat is a pretty sticky service and if a brand can entice users to switch, their overall service use would likely increase considerably, enhancing their value to advertisers and paying an even higher price for these “free” services.

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p>In the meantime, hopes for an open Web based on interoperable standards and protocols are fading. Our hopes now lie with companies like Mozilla and, ironically, to an extent with Google which is still an advocate for an open Web and their desire to move beyond closed platforms and continue building an interoperable Web capable of generating meaningful revenue to support free services.

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