Why I’m worried about the future of the open web

“The future of online news is brighter than ever.” If you include all private communications on the apps eating the web, this claim is true. People are using more apps than ever, but many of those apps don’t connect well to other apps. In fact, the most popular apps are sort of dueling with each other for our time. It’s casting a shadow on everything that existed before them, namely, the open web.

The web is humming along, but…

If, like me, you don’t consider monopolies a sustainable part of an open market, the future of web is really not fine at all. This isn’t a new concern—the debate over the state of the open web has been raging for at least 10 years. It just feels more often like I’m reading the internet’s version of the obit section these days.

We’re literally running out of time

Consider this analysis by Chris Dixon written all the way back in 2014 (do things from 2014 even exist on the web anymore?): “Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.” There’s research suggesting that the app world is saturated—what I mean by that is that people with more frequency may be choosing to spend time between apps as opposed to having more total time for all apps.

[Doctor’s Note: Saturated app usage could be a good or bad thing, it really depends on what you think matters the most to encourage the natural flow of information across and between apps, platforms, countries, and wifi connections. This is data, not a diagnoses after all. I’ll stop here and note that if you have research or data you think matters to this discussion, leave it in the comments.]

In January, Flurry Analytics reported that “mobile apps started eating their own” in 2016, “with session and time-spent growth in some app categories occurring at the expense of others.” In other words, people are picking which apps monopolize their time. Apps are monopolizing our time versus the mobile web, and there’s no sense that will change anytime soon.

Where is the web going?

1834_Duel_Woodcut_Jackson_Dickenson_LOC
“The Duel.”: Andrew Jackson killing Charles Dickenson. Woodcut, 1834. US Library of Congress
Let’s step back from a moment. The landscape of online distribution is changing every day, and it’s not only about app saturation, ad blocking popularity or other consumer-driven changes (though those things are very important). I’m not an expert (I’ve put some recommended reading below), but it seems to me as if the open web isn’t in a fantastically secure position to stay that way outside of two behaviors/facts: the active choices people engage in to make it so by sheer volume, and public policies, regulations, and other legal windows which allow the web to grow  freely, openly, in perpetuity.

Here are three examples of the duel between open-versus-closed information ecosystems, all from the past week alone.

First, here’s further confirmation that the FCC Chairman wants to scrap net neutrality rules. (Bright side: It may be harder than it looks to undo them.) If you’re interested, read Commissioner Terrell McSweeny’s critical response here.  

Second, check out this chart that shows information on the ownership of ad revenue banks, which have become a clear duopoly between Google and Facebook. (Bright side: You tell me! Mathew Ingram reports the numbers are actually worse.) 

Third, consider that the Environmental Protection Agency will not remove public data and research about taxpayer-funded programs, after allowing months of speculation to pass without any comment. When you visit opendata.epa.gov now, a pop-up appears stating: “The data on this Web site will continue to be available past April 28, 2017.” (Bright side: Thanks for letting the public see federally-funded research?)

I don’t even have it so bad

There are countries which restrict web and internet-based communications access in more far-reaching manners than in the U.S., manners which are explicitly anti-consumer. Let’s take a look at one of them, China, as reviewed in an interview with Jane Perlez, who is the Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times. Perlez describes the clear economic consequences of limiting web access in China:

We live and die by the strength of virtual private networks, or VPNs. The Chinese government is always trying to disrupt VPNs. Some work relatively well for a few months, then all of a sudden they slow down, a sign that the government has successfully interfered with them. As journalists, we feel frustrated by the instability of the internet, the overall slowness.

There are so many places where people have far less access to open information systems than I do. Turkey. Venezuela. Myanmar. And more sites are being created to spread misinformation or rip of artists who put their work online. The web is not in a great place, no matter how you read the tea leaves.

This is a good place to stop worrying and start researching, but one thing is clear to me: The open web is that way because people like you and me actively choose, build, and protect it to be so. Whether it stays that way–or we live in a world jumping between closed bubbles created by monopolies who run ads and apps—is sort of up to… us.


Recommended reading:

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