War for the Web
08 03.12

Walled Gardens

There’s a term that comes up a lot when you talk about the bad old days of the Internet, before the world wide web when AOL, Compuserve and others provided access only to their networks, and not to the Internet as a whole. These were called walled gardens. The open Internet presented a vast improvement over walled gardens for a variety of reasons. First and foremost they opened the Internet to competition. In the era of walled gardens, content on the AOL network was approved by AOL. That means that the only applications, content and information that could be offered to AOL subscribers came from AOL. They acted as gatekeepers to their users and censors to the web overall.

When the wall came down, when the World Wide Web opened its doors and users and applications flooded the web, we saw a boom in Internet companies. The so-called “dot-com” bubble was just that, a bubble, but from the collapse in 1999 we saw some of the largest and most powerful companies of the current era emerge. Amazon, eBay, and numerous others got their start during the dot-com bubble. It is pretty clear that the opening of the Internet, and the collapse of the walled garden system were beneficial to the Internet as a whole.

But we’re poised now to head into a new era of walled gardens, and scarily enough we’re doing it to ourselves. Facebook, Google, others like them have made it easier and easier for us to spend all of our time there. This isn’t their fault, they have every incentive to keep you on their pages, that way they can sell you advertising. So when you use a Facebook social reader, when you open a link on Facebook instead of in a browser, when you use G chat and you use Gmail, keep in mind that you’re allowing yourself to be secluded in a walled garden.

They make it easy, in fact it is quite insidious. There’s really no reason to leave when everything you could want is at your fingertips. But there are tremors in the air of more serious seclusion to come. Google has begun to lay fiber in Kansas City and other places across the country. There’s no doubt that this build out will be beneficial for these communities. Internet access will increase, speeds will increase, and there is every possibility that prices will come down for broadband. But over the long term, if the Google network gets big enough, what is to stop them from limiting access to the rest of the Internet?

Facebook has been rumored to have a phone in the works. While this is largely unsubstantiated, the same potential for seclusion applies. As more and more people turn to mobile devices for their Internet access, this can become just another means to introduce gatekeepers to the Internet.

We’ve already seen this with Apple products. We all love our iPhones and our iPads, but few of us think about the fact that all applications that we use on these devices have to undergo a questionable approval process. One that basically allows Apple to prevent the sale of any applications that it doesn’t like. They also do this with content. Anything that Apple decides is smut cannot be sold through the App store. The App store is the only way to install applications (without jailbreaking) on the iPhone.

You give up some freedom when you use an iPhone. The fact that you don’t notice the freedom that you’re giving up is simply a testament to how well Apple has accomplished their goals. As these devices become more prevalent in the future, it is important to ask yourself whenever you decide to purchase a device like this: “what will this prevent me from doing, and is that worth the convenience it offers?”



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