Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Data Portability and the Walled Gardens of the Web...

Imagine if the Internet as we know it didn't exist. Imagine if, in its place, there were thousands of smaller networks, each with its own rules and users, and no one was able to communicate or search across them.

That scenario isn't referring to a hypothetical past, but a potential future. Technologists have been fretting over several events this past week which they believe might lead to the fragmentation of the current Internet into many internets that won't work together.

How valid are their fears?

Part 1 - The Issue

Data portability is the idea that your information should be, well, portable. People shouldn't have to be "locked in" to one social-networking site forever; they should be able to carry their profile information and friends-list across websites if they choose to do so. Companies have made their users' data portable in the past - for instance, you can use software like Pidgin to access your AIM, Yahoo, or MSN instant messenger friends all from one place. The Internet itself is built on this idea that data should be publicly accessible from anywhere (if the publisher chooses to make it so).

Which brings us to this week's battle currently underway between Google, MySpace, and Facebook over the control of people's profile information on the social-networking sites. Many users of these sites share the experience of having to re-find their friends and re-enter their profile information repeatedly on both sites (and even several others as well), and that's not an accident... it's by design. MySpace and Facebook have closed off people's data from the outside world. Sometimes this is a good thing (with regards to privacy rights), but others times, like when somebody actually wishes to share their information publicly, the websites don't let them do so.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch vents his frustration this way, "The fact is, this isn’t Facebook’s data. It’s my data. And if I give Google permission to do stuff with it, I’m damned well within my rights to do so. By blocking Google, Facebook has blocked ME. And that, frankly, kind of frustrates me."

"Let me put this another way. How dare Facebook tell ME that I cannot give Google access to this data!"

Because of Google's recent foray into the social-networking field with its FriendConnect service (which takes a far more open approach), MySpace and Facebook are now scrambling to put out their own alternatives - MySpace has created a service called "Data Availability" and Facebook has launched "Facebook Connect". Each realizes that "to keep users happy, and to stop them from entering in all that friend data into other sites, they need to make their data at least somewhat portable. Not too portable, mind you. That means they’d lose control. But just portable enough. That’s why they are launching their products".

Part 2 - The Problem

Think of the current Internet as a gigantic public park or common area, open and accessible to all. The problem with a lack of data portability is that suddenly you have "walled gardens" appearing within this park - private, closed-off, more tightly controlled areas where you have to be a member in order to use it.

Walled gardens fragment the Internet into separate zones and, ultimately, make its public area far less useful. Thus, the big story this week that Microsoft is trying yet again to buy Yahoo Search is getting an inordinate amount of attention. The Scobleizer blog reports, "Microsoft will buy Yahoo’s search and then buy Facebook for $15 to $20 billion... That just changed the whole argument of Facebook vs. Google to one of Microsoft vs. the Web."

To demonstrate this point further:

Loic Le Meur did a little test with me a couple of weeks ago. He listed his Le Web conference on both Facebook and Here’s the Facebook listing. Here’s the one.

The Facebook one can’t be seen if you don’t have a Facebook account. It’s NOT open to the public Web. Google’s spiders CAN NOT REACH IT.

He put both listings up at exactly the same time and did no invites, nothing. Just let people find these listings on their own.

The Facebook one is NOT available to the Web. It has 467 people who’ve accepted it. The one IS available to Google and the Web. It has 101 people on it.

This is a fight for the Web. We all just crawled inside a box that locks Google out.

Don’t believe me?

Go to Google and do a search for "Le Web 08".

Do you see a Facebook entry there? Nope. Google is locked out of the Web that soon will be owned by Microsoft. We will never get an open Web back if these two deals happen...

Now Microsoft/Yahoo search will have access to HUGE SWATHS of Internet info that Google will NOT have access to.

Make no mistake about it. Dividing the Internet up into separate walled gardens would completely transform the Internet as we know it, and repudiate its founding principle of sharing information in an open public space accessible to all.

Part 3 - The Solution

How to tear down the walled gardens of the Web? That's simple... keep the Internet open. A burgeoning software field is quickly developing that promotes data portability and is engineering software to make use of it.

OpenID is a single sign-on solution that allows people to sign into different services with the same login credentials. Its been gaining widespread acceptance over the past year, and has already been put to use by Google, numerous blogs, and many other forward-thinking sites. Similarly, Pidgin is an instant messenger client that also allows you to login to many IM accounts at once.

Again, the big picture is keeping the Internet exactly that... one Internet, rather than numerous private intranets. Too often we take for granted that Google can search the entire Web, and that we even have a "commons" in the first place. But if the walled-gardens-companies would have their way, there wouldn't be any search engines that scoured the entire Web. There would be dozens of search engines, none of which could search the Web, but only the sections of it to which they were a part. Think of it as privatization run amok.

Is that the Internet you want to imagine?


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