Sergey Brin on the Internet: He Has a Point, You Know

Google founder Sergey Brin has some interesting thoughts to share in his interview with the Gaurdian today. His primacy concern is around the future of what he calls ‘the open internet.’

By this, he means the internet as it was originally conceived and built: a series of independent websites which provided information and were accessible to all. It is this model, as he notes, that allowed for Google to build a searchable index of content.

He sees the threat to that model coming from a variety of places. On the one hand you have companies such as Apple and Facebook who are “walled gardens”, hosting information either in applications or behind logins through which web crawlers such as Google can’t go and therefore can’t index. On the other hand, governments are increasingly trying to use the internet as a means to track their citizens and the things that they are doing. He cites the usual suspects like Iran and China, but under recent regulation or proposed legislation he could as well have added the US and UK to that list.

In these cases he has a point. In the case of Government

As for the “open internet” he espouses? That is a little thornier. Anyone has the ability to deny Google (or any search engine) access to their site with the addition of a tiny text file and a couple of lines of instructions. This is part of the long standing convention of the internet and its relationship with privacy: you may wish to publish things and share only with a small number of people for a huge number of reasons.

Secondly, some people would prefer you to pay for their content. And why not? Few people would write and produce a novel and give it away for nothing (as ever, there are outliers) – most would expect to get paid. Rupert Murdoch may or not be foolish for placing The Times behind a paywall, but it is his right as a publisher to demand payment for what his organisation has produced.

Finally, there is an element of privacy. A platform such as Facebook does offer you control over your privacy to some degree. Facebook employees and their software can mine the shit of everything I’ve ever done for sure, but in terms of the lay public, I’ve got my privacy settings maxed out so that only people I’m happy to can see what I’m doing, who I’m married to, where I live and so on. Again, for many reasons I may not want that information out there on Google where it can’t be controlled.

This is before we get even get to the huge parts of the internet which operate below the horizon and off the official grid altogether, such as Silk Road (you’ll need TOR).

So the “open internet” has never been all-encompassing. It may have been part of the founding principles of the internet, but in truth – like all ideals – it was unenforceable and its erosion inevitable.

Of course, Brin has a dog in this fight, which creeps out in some of his comments: “There’s a lot to be lost. For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.”

By this, he means that Google can’t search it and therefore can’t monetise it.

In fact, many apps are in fact highly specialised search engines in themselves. The Booking.com app is, as I have opined before, an existential threat to Google’s search model in the hotel space. Having used it several times, the idea of going back to Google to search for “hotels in leeds” seems suddenly alien to me. The same is true for movie reviews: I wouldn’t dream of searching Google for movie reviews now I have the IMDB app. The same is true for tide times, booking a train ticket or any number of mundane tasks for which Google was once the default port of call.

Despite all this strategic weakness that Brin has revealed about Google, he also has a point. The internet was supposed to free information from jealous gatekeepers – the final step of the transmission of information from the elites to the masses that began with the printing press. In many ways it still is. The only question is: will you use Google to find that information?

The answer is not as clear now as it was 5 years ago.

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