Will the “Closing of the Open Web” also close the door on the possibility of individual agency over personal data?

March 10th, 2012 by Alex Selkirk

Recently there were a a spate of posts about the threat posed by dynamically-generated and therefore closed black box web services like Facebook and even more hermetically sealed proprietary content delivery platforms like iOS and Android to an open web.

I won’t rehash the whole explanation here as it is very well explained there, but a thought experiment that is worth unraveling is to imagine what the first-world would look like today if we had gone straight from proprietary desktop applications to proprietary mobile device applications, skipping over the age of the browser altogether.

Even if you are not well-versed in the nitty-gritty of http (hyper-text transfer protocol, as in how data gets passed around the internet), you might still have an intuitive sense that many things we take for granted today would not exist.

Google for one.
Shopping comparison sites for another.
Facebook would be a completely different beast.
Twitter wouldn’t exist.

All of the above rely on an “open web” speaking a “standard language” that anyone (meaning any piece of software that also speaks the “standard language”) can access and understand.

lockers

Sharing content via “links” wouldn’t really make sense if the content were locked inside of Apps that each individual had to pay for.

In general there would probably be a lot less content overall as content providers would have had to make the same hard choice desktop software makers have had to make for decades: Which platforms do I build for?

How might the world be different today if open web standards had never taken hold?

Free content might not be the norm.

For example, publishing might not be in its death throes as content-providers would have been able to lock down their content by delivering them in apps users paid for.

Without Google and the ability to follow users across property boundaries on the web, targeted advertising might not be the de rigueur business model for internet startups.

One scenario we haven’t seen spelled out is that the end of the open web also has unfortunate consequences for the idea that users might one day gain control over their own data.

Today, we are for the most part at the mercy of the websites, services and apps we use when it comes to what data is collected about us and how it’s used. Each web domain and service has it’s own terms of use (Apple recently presented me with a 42-page doozy for iTunes) and gets to decide what to collect, how to make use of it and who to share it with (usually with Google via Google AdWords or Google Analytics and Facebook via Facebook Like Button or Facebook Connect).

However today, in the browser, theoretical meta-services could be built that allow users to collect all the same data web sites collect and decide what they want to do with it. This possibility exists in the form of browser add-ons that have the same access to user behavior that web sites do, but with the significant difference that the browser add-on can track users wherever the user decides they would like to collect data about themselves.

By contrast, each web site can only track users within the confines of its domain, or if you’re a big player like Google and Facebook, you can track users wherever other websites have agreed to put Google AdWords, make use of Google Analytics or have installed Facebook Like buttons.

This theoretical possibility however does not exist on any of the mobile platforms. There is no way to plug-in to iOS or Android as a “meta-layer” across all apps to collect user behavioral data.

Given that these meta-layer user-centered data collection services are largely theoretical, it’s understandable that no one is losing sleep over them. However from our perspective, the decline of access points to collect data on the web presents a very real loss for advancing individual user control over data.

In the end, we still believe that the best way for individuals to regain footing in our privacy/data-collection tug-of-war with online services is for users to engage with data rather than run away from it.

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