There’s been some more noise among web writers and bloggers about the threats faced by the open web1. Chris Dixon likes to imagine there’s a pendulum of fortune that swings back and forth between favoring open and closed systems, but Ev Williams is skeptical (as am I) that the pendulum swings freely in both directions; Cennydd says we will probably have to live with defeat, but Jeremy Keith expresses a “judicious hope” that openness will prevail.
At the end of his piece, Ev says “I’m intrigued to hear what, more specifically, would push things in the other direction.” I’m glad someone is finally asking that question! Because ‘judicious hope’ needs to be validated with specific courses of action. I have some ideas.
Here they are:
- Require some high percentage (I’d say 90%) of revenue from targeted online ad sales to be passed through to all end users who are seeing the ads. (Revenue from ads displayed to everyone without any personalization at all — like in a print publication — would not be subject to this.)
- Make it outright illegal under any conditions (even with consent) to sell users’ data (personal info, tracking, etc) without passing along 90% of the sale to those users. The sale of non-anonymized data should be illegal under any circumstances.
- Build direct micropayments into the web. Make direct payments as easy and expected on the open web as it is on walled content gardens like the App Store or Kindle store. Remove advertising from its high throne as the web’s default revenue route.
- For all businesses that allow the public use of their servers to store and communicate information, require them to offer users instant downloads of all their data in one of N approved formats, and to reserve for all their users a set percentage of nonvoting, non-dilutable stock options in the business.
The thinking behind these ideas will be filled in with a later supplement. But first, try your best to imagine what the internet would look like if they were implemented and enforced. How would they affect Facebook and Twitter? Online journalism? Blogging services? The entire Silicon Valley startup scene?
I’ll say up front that that these rules are designed to empower small, independent sites and to make certain kinds of huge online businesses unprofitable to run. If implemented, these rules would turn the business side of the web upside down. I seriously doubt, for example, whether Facebook or Twitter would ever have been become what they are now under this environment, or if they would find it possible to continue their businesses if we implemented it now.
They might be great ideas, or not, but they are concrete, suitable in scope to the actual problems, technically feasible, and based on certain first principles. I’d like to see people kick them around and build on them, or at least offer their own proposals (which no one besides Maciej Cegłowski has attempted as far as I can tell).
In all of these posts, we talk about the dangers of “centralization” and the threat of the “closed web” without really defining what we’re talking about. To some extent we need that shorthand because the threat is complex and has a lot of arms and legs; it would be tedious to go into that kind of detail every time. Maciej Cegłowski gave the most complete, historically aware, and eminently readable description of it in a presentation he gave in May 2014. Set aside a few minutes to read it.↩