February 29, 2012

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I own a lot of books and music CDs — enough to fill many shelves. Here’s just one:

They are relatively uncomplicated possessions. There are no limits (other than mine) on who can read my books, or what else  I can do with them, shy of abusing fairly obvious copyright laws. (For example, I can’t plagiarize somebody’s writing, or reproduce whole chapters of a book I’m quoting.) Music is a bit more complicated, but not to the degree that I stop assuming that I own and control the CDs on my shelves (even when they’re copied onto a hard drive, or stored in a cloud). The same even goes for the videocassettes and DVD of movies I’ve purchased. They are mine. I own them.

But books, music and movies from Amazon, Apple and other BigCos aren’t really sold. They are licensed. Take Amazon’s terms of use for e-books. They say this:

… the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.

Pretty clear. That stuff ain’t yours. All you get is some downloaded data and a highly restricted set of permissions for where and how you use that data, mostly within within the walled gardens provided by Amazon and the Content Providers. So it’s really more like renting than buying. (And not from friendly competitors, either.)

What’s more, the seller can also change the licensing terms at will. For example, in Apple’s terms for iTunes, it says “Apple reserves the right to modify the Usage Rules at any time.” Somewhere deep in the 55-page terms of use for the iPhone it says the same kind of thing. This is why your ownership of a smartphone is far more diminished than your ownership of a laptop or a camera. That’s because our phones are members of proprietary systems that we don’t operate. This is why the major operators (e.g. Verizon, AT&T) and OEMs (e.g. Apple and Google) are at liberty to reach into your phone and turn stuff on and off. (MVNOs such as Ting distinguish themselves by not doing that.)

Same with TV. Nothing you watch on your cable or satellite systems is yours. In most cases the gear isn’t yours either. It’s a subscription service you rent and pay for monthly. Companies in the cable and telephone business would very much like the Internet to work the same way. Everything becomes billable, regularly, continuously. All digital pipes turn into metered spigots for “content” and services on the telephony model, where you pay for easily billable data forms such as minutes and texts. (If AT&T or Verizon ran email you’d pay by the message, or agree to a “deal” for X number of emails per month.)

Free public wi-fi is getting crowded out by cellular companies looking to move some of the data carrying load over to their own billable wi-fi systems. Some operators are looking to bill the sources of content for bandwidth while others experiment with usage-based pricing, helping turn the Net into a multi-tier commercial system. (Never mind that “data hogs” mostly aren’t.) And mobile carriers are starting to slice up the Web itself. In All Mobile Traffic Isn’t Equal — As ‘Net Neutrality’ Debate Swirls, Wireless Carriers Start Cutting Special Deals , Anton Troianovski writes this in the Wall Street Journal:

One of Europe’s biggest wireless companies recently started offering a new plan in France: For less than $14 a month, customers could get unlimited Web browsing on their phones.

The catch—the Internet was limited to Twitter and Facebook. Every 20 minutes spent on any other website cost nearly 70 cents.

France Telecom SA’s Orange Group is one of several wireless carriers around the world experimenting with slicing up the Web into limited offerings and exclusive deals they hope will bring marketing advantages or higher profits.

In Turkey, mobile operator Turkcell lets users pay a flat fee to access Facebook, but not competing Turkish social networks. Polish carrier Play has offered free access to a handful of sites including Facebook but charged for the rest of the Web. And AT&T Inc. now says it’s planning to let app developers subsidize U.S. subscribers’ use of services.

Such tests remain the exception not the rule. Still, they show that the “open Web” ideal that has long governed Internet use is starting to break down as more and more surfing takes place on mobile devices.

Telecom executives, tired of being the “dumb pipes” through which valuable Internet traffic flows, say they need to cut such deals to make investing in expensive mobile-data networks worthwhile. But entrepreneurs seeking to devise new mobile offerings worry the shifting rules of the game will favor well-heeled companies that can afford carriers’ new terms.

Thus turning the mobile Web into something more like TV.

Meanwhile, back on the book and music front, publishers already have the Amazon and Apple content sphincters in place, on the iPads, iPhones and Kindles that are gradually marginalizing our dull old all-purpose desktop and laptop computers.What used to be radio is gradually turning into a rights-clearing mess. You like Spotify? Read Michael Robertson on how hard it is for Spotify and other radio-like music services to make money, or for the artists to make much either. You like to hear music on the radio, either over the air or over streams? Read David Oxenford’s report on how complicated that’s getting. Stopping SOPA was indeed an achievement by advocates of a free and open Internet.  But that was like stopping one goal in a football game after the other side already built up a 100-to-0 lead.

So, while BigCo walled gardeners such as Apple and Amazon continue to convert things that could be owned in the physical world (starting with music and books) into what can only be licensed in the virtual one, the regulatory framework around the Internet is ratcheting in an ever more restrictive direction, partly at the behest of regulatory captors such as the phone, cable and content companies (all getting more and more vertically integrated), and partly at the behest of countries that want the UN and the ITU to help them restrict Net usage inside their borders.  The latter is less about licensing than about pure politics, but it’s still at variance with the free and open marketplace the Net opened up in the first place.

John Battelle has long been observing this trend, and contextualizes it in a post titled It’s not whether Google’s threatened. It’s asking ourselves: What commons do we wish for?, The gist:

What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

- No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

- Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

- Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

What’s hard for walled gardeners to grok — and for the rest of us as well  — is that  the free and open worlds created by generative systems such as PCs and the Internet have boundaries sufficiently wide to allow creation of what Umair Haque calls “thick value” in abundance. To Apple, Amazon, AT&T and Verizon, building private worlds for captive customers might look like thick value, but in the long run captive customer husbandry closes more opportunities across the marketplace than they open. Companies do compete (as do governments), but the market and civilization are both games that support positive sum outcomes for multiple players. The free and open Internet is the game board on which the Boston Consulting Group says a $2.1 trillion economy grew in 2010, on a trajectory to reach $4.2 trillion by 2016. That game board is also a commons, and it’s being enclosed. (Lewis Hyde, author of Common as Air, calls it the “third enclosure.”)

By losing the free and open Internet, and free and open devices to interact with it — and even such ordinary things as physical books and music media — we reduce the full scope of both markets and civilization.

But that’s hard to see when the walled gardens are so rich with short-term benefits.

[Later...] I should make clear that I’m not against silos as a business breed, or vertical integration as a business strategy. In fact, I think we owe a great deal of progress to both. I think Apple actually opened up the smartphone market with the iPhone, and its vertical private marketplace. The concern I’m expressing in this post is with the fractioning of the commercial Web, as we experience it, and of much else that happens on the Net, into private vertical silos, using proprietary gear that limits what can be done to what the company owning the whole market allows. The book business, for example, largely happens inside Amazon, as of today. I think this is good in some ways, and worse in others. I’m visiting the worse here.