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Commentary: Is the Open Web Doomed? Open Your Eyes and Relax

BY Esther Dyson | Monday, February 6 2012

Photo by Joshua Sherman, PdF 2011

We asked veteran technology writer and investor Esther Dyson, a longtime friend of Personal Democracy, for her thoughts on a current controversy: is the open web dying? --The Editors

I'm wading into an argument that I think may be overblown. With Facebook going public and Google threatened by apps and closed services such as FB, is the open web doomed? You might think so after reading the dueling blog posts of John Battelle, Robert Scoble and Dave Winer in the past few days. But things are a bit more complicated.

Battelle starts by asking whether Google is doomed – and what that means for the open net as a whole. Scoble jumps in to say he wanted to save the world from walled gardens four years ago, when he tried to export his data in bulk from Facebook and got temporarily banned as a result. But now he has joined the other side – and is opening it up from inside by making his own Facebook data public. And Dave Winer says he's going down with the ship – loyal to openness till the end.

But whether the Web is dead or open or shut is not a question that will be settled once and for all, but rather a situation that will fluctuate in cycles (even if the Web takes on some other name). FTP (file transfer protocol, remember that?) and CompuServe weren't the end of history; neither was the worldwide web. Nor will Google or Facebook and apps be the end of things. If the Web gets too closed, outfits such as (whose founder Jim Fournier I met for lunch yesterday) and its «augmented social network» will enable individuals to manage their own data and fight back ... if they want to.

So what's the difference between paternalism and our duty to save people from tyrants or from companies whose privacy statements are incomprehensible? If people are happy with Facebook, why should we disturb them? If the Iraqis weren't going to topple Saddam Hussein, what right – or obligation - did we outsiders have to do so?

In a world where Facebook can go from dorm-room project to $100-billion IPO in seven years, it may seem careless to suggest that we can wait for 5 or 10 years for a backlash if one is necessary, but I think that's the case.

Of course, we can also be part of the backlash...I'm not saying don't be part of the backlash; I'm just suggesting that the backlash will work – abetted by the march of technology and user neophilia. In fact, Winer and Scoble and Battelle are all part of the workings of the broader market, which includes not just companies and self-styled freedom groups of all kinds, but also pundits and politicians, each of them with a plan to address the dangers they see. Yes, I even include so-called collective action – government interference – on occasion. But be careful what you wish for. You are just as likely to get SOPA as you are to get a freer internet. Personally, I think antitrust enforcement is the best approach in a world where technology changes even faster than election cycles, but even antitrust is often driven more by sentiment and fashion than by clean economics.

As the world turns....

So, back to the present. Right now, we're moving slowly from open data and APIs and standards, to a world of Facebook and apps. We're likely to see abandonment of the DNS by consumers both because of those apps, and a tragedy of the commons where new Top-Level Domain names (.whatevers and .brands) confuse users and lead to more use of the search box or links within apps.

At the same time, Facebook is responding (in its own way) to user and advertiser demands. Scoble likes Facebook because it lets him manage his Klout score; I like it because I can limit comments to (mostly) people who are not totally crazy. And I can also write for Project Syndicate (an op-ed service that sells its content to profitable newspapers and offers it for free to the deserving poor worldwide) to reach and hear from a broader audience. None of this is all or nothing. Different individuals have different preferences; sometimes even the same individual has different preferences.

I don't actually think we're facing a world of no choices. In fact, we all have many choices...and it's up to us to make them. Yes, many people make choices I despise, but this is the world of the long tail. Of course, the short, fat front is always more popular; it all gets homogenized and each individual gets either one central broadcast, or something so tailored he never learns anything new, as in Eli Pariser's filter bubble... That's exactly when some fearless entrepreneur will come along with something wild and crazy that will totally dominate everything 10 years later.