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The Web’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, by Greg, DigitalTonto

December 12, 2010

The Web has become the most consequential force for the spread of information and innovation since the advent of the printing press.  The debate over its future is heating up, so it was inevitable that its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, would eventually weigh in.

He did just that in an article in Scientific American in which he lays out the facts as only he could.  The online world as we know it is under dire threat from a variety of special interests who seek advantage at the expense of the rest of us.

The issues, although abstract, are far from esoteric and there is truly a lot at stake.

 

What Tim Berners-Lee Created

The World Wide Web has become such a pervasive phenomenon that it’s hard to believe that one man created it.  What is even more incredible is that, for all of the untold billions that it bestowed on investors and entrepreneurs, he never tried to get rich from it.  From the beginning, he made the code free, open and public.

What makes the current debates confusing to many is that there is a substantive difference between the Internet and the Web.  The Internet existed decades before the Web came along, but it was less valuable because we didn’t use it very much. At first, it was mostly for academics, then became available to consumers only through closed services like AOL andCompuServe.

Berners-Lee designed the web to run on top of the Internet architecture.   It has two salient characteristics that changed everything:

Universality: The web enables information to be accessed on any device, no matter who built it, what software it runs or who created the content.  If it is converted to HTML, we all can see it (and converting is very easy, you can even save Microsoft Office documents to HTML automatically).

Connectivity: Once a page is on the Web, it is theoretically connected to every other page.  It becomes part of the whole ecosystem.  Furthermore, linking allows us to vote for what we think is important.  Links, after all, form the basis of how search engines like Google and Bing help us find what we’re looking for.

The Expanding Web

In addition to creating the Web, Berners-Lee presides over the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), whose members include major corporations, government agencies as well as educational and non-profit institutions.

The main focus of the W3C is to come up with standards, called recommendations to ensure that the web’s capabilities stay relevant and universal.  These standards are open, meaning that anybody who wants to use them can do so without having to get permission or pay a license fee.  Nobody owns them and everybody profits.

In short, the Web is a non-commercial entity that enables commerce as nothing that has come before.

The Web Under Siege

You can imagine Berners-Lee’s consternation that the Web’s core principles are now being subverted.  His article in Scientific American lists three major threats:

Net Neutrality: As I noted above, one of the founding principles of the Web is that it is universal.  You can access any information you want regardless of what device you own, who produced it or how you access the Internet.

Now, those who provide us with Internet service want to have a say in what pages we go to.  If you go to the sites that they own or are affiliated with, you are put in a “fast lane,” while to access competitors sites you get stuck in the “slow lane.”

If those who provide us with our connection to the Internet are allowed to give preference to some Web services over others, universality becomes a sham.  A useful analogy is the electricity grid.  Imagine if your electric utility could charge you more for using some appliances than for others.

This is more than just a theoretical debate and, as this Washington Post column explains, it will hurt consumers and threatens free enterprise and innovation.

Snooping: Another issue of increasing importance is snooping.  This is different from how Web sites can collect “cookies” to monitor our habits and save our preferences for next time we visit.   Most web browsers have privacy modes that allow us to surf anonymously or we can turn off cookies entirely.  It’s fairly easy to protect our privacy from cookie tracking.

More nefariously,  Internet service providers can now track “packets” of information that go between us and the web sites we visit without our knowledge or approval.  They can access data about whether we’ve recently looked at information about heart disease, an upcoming pregnancy or what political views we subscribe to.

Imagine that you’re interviewing for a job and your prospective employer is able to pull up information about what you’ve surfed or that you’ve been stopped for a minor traffic violation and the research you’re son was doing for a school report on terrorism comes up.

Again, this is no mere tech issue and, unlike cookie tracking, there are not even any theoretical benefits to consumers.  Basic tenets of liberal democracy are in peril.

Closed Applications: Another area of concern are closed Internet applications or “apps,” like those on devices such as iPads or iPhones and, to a lesser extent, on web sites like Facebook.  These are designed to be proprietary and undermine the connectivity of the Web.

It is important to note that this is completely separate from the issue of whether or not people should pay for content.  The Web allows plenty of options to restrict use.  If you feel that only paying customers should be able to access your content, then that is a reasonable position you have a right to take (although, in the past, I have argued it’s usually unwise).

An “app” driven online world, however, would be a throwback to the days of AOL and “walled gardens.”  The owners of choke points such as Apple and Facebook could eventually use their market power to extract a toll from anybody who would like to offer us a service.

Think about that.  You buy a phone because you think it looks cool or join a social network because you want to connect with friends and somebody you’ve never met gets to have a say in what you read, what music you listen to, etc.  It’s outrageous!

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The dynamics of the current situation are a classic case of a Prisoner’s Dilemma like the one shown below:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Both benefit from cooperation, but left to their own devices will end up worse off

In this example we have two prisoners, Henry and Dave (the numbers vary slightly in different versions, but the principle stays the same).

Each is offered the same deal: if one confesses and the other doesn’t, he will get only one year in jail while his friend will get five years.  If they are both loyal to each other, they will get only two years each and if they are both rats, they will each get three years.

They are much better off collectively if they can trust one another.  However, each is better off individually by screwing his buddy.  The overall effect is that the most likely scenario is the worst case: They both confess and get a total of six years in jail between them.

The situation with the open Web today is very much the same.  There is a clear benefit to universality and connectivity.  However, individual corporations stand to benefit if they can rig the game towards proprietary solutions (i.e. screw their buddy) .  If that happens, we are back to the “walled gardens” and diminished potential of the pre-Web age.

What Does the Future Hold?

Regular readers of this blog know that, in the past, I have espoused two views.  On the one hand, I strongly believe that the Web will prevail over apps.  Connectivity is a fairly transparent benefit and as long as the web exists, it presents a clear alternative to walled gardens.

Net neutrality and privacy, however, are more problematic. The open Web is similar to open trade.  While free trade clearly benefits all, well-entrenched interests benefit from restricted trade.  The cost of various subsidies and tariffs cost us billions each year.

One thing is clear:  An open Web is not a matter that the market can work out itself.  As a public good, it is a market externality, which pertains to everybody collectively, but no one individually.  Therefore, the only way to protect the Web is through consumer activism and government action if we are to preserve a marketplace that remains competitive and innovative.

As the issue is currently being played out in the US Congress, we should realize that we all have a stake in this and be vigilant in our opposition to a balkanized Web.

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