TOC Give me liberty and give me life Your Turn

May 13, 2008

How to ensure our information platform remain as open, and thus as creative, as it is today to the benefit of society at large? I promised last week to detail how to tackle Jonathan Zittrain's challenge. The reader will judge whether my solution is superior than Zittrain's own recipe but should take note I use many of his ingredients, a reflection of our sharing the same analysis.

Going back to the old stand alone personal computer would be a dead end while adopting "tethered appliances" like the Apple iPhone would be akin to kissing good-bye to computing freedom, if not to spammers as Laura M. Holson warns us (*). Deprived of an open computing platform connecting personal devices through a network, we would lose the "generative power" Zittrain's book has so well described (1).

Today the only open computing platform available is from Google, which has wrested dominance from Microsoft. Because it follows a software as a service centralized approach, Zittrain is correct in rejecting it. Conditional freedom at the mercy of a company's interests is no liberty. Indeed the end of "enforcement latency" enables Google to assert its power at the speed of light in a way never before achieved by Microsoft and IBM. And it is too soon to count on governments, witness the supine behavior of both the FTC and the European Commission in the DoubleClick affair.

Where I differ from Zittrain is to reject his list of palliative measures as insufficient, or as Richard Waters has it "somewhat idealistic" (**). Only a new open platform can displace Google, a feat which requires no less than a disruptive technology and a new business model. This will take time and considerable resources. There is hope however. First the trend is for shorter dominance spans (2). Second stressing economics is no excuse to ignore the importance of social factors. Let us not forget a networked society can marshal resources faster than isolated individuals.

The solution then? An open, user-centric platform which supports Internet-based personalized interactions and still keeps one's personal data at arm's length from service providers as well as from any other party. Disruptive it is because monitoring prevails today. This is how Facebook intends to catch users cheating on their age, as Brad Stone tells us (***), and how Findwhere can deploy the new location-based service mentioned by Paul Taylor (****). Enable me to track you by GPS and let your friends know where you are.

This solution also invalidates Google's Faustian bargain of free service at the cost of submitting to permanent surveillance. If however consumers change their own behavior to make it more efficient for organizations to interact with them through the new platform, consumers can reinvent the current business model, which finances free services from organizations' marketing budgets. Rather than contrasting social and economic objectives, the solution links them in a new compact. The platform I advocate has thus the potential to seize dominance from Google. But is it realistic?

From a technical point of view, ePrio has shown how to implement the solution. In keeping with procrastination, a feature so well sung by Zittrain, the current state of ePrio's solution is incomplete. While matching and mailing are opened to all enterprising domain makers, the ability to program applications at its lowest layer has not been made accessible to the public, pending further resources. The proof of existence has been made though.

Meanwhile Craigslist has demonstrated how to run a growing and profitable business based on the model we advocate. Its current legal dispute with eBay described by Noam Cohen (*****) and Richard Waters (******) is proof enough that, far from being utopian, weaving together economic and social impulses can successfully threaten the interests of established industry leaders.

eBay's lawsuit against Craigslist is also a stark reminder of the stakes behind Zittrain's challenge. Suppose eBay can show Craigslist's management's refusal to maximize profits at all cost has hurt its interests as a minority shareholder. What prevents Craigslist, especially under new management, to suddenly exploit its unique potential to aggregate personal profiles and reap the rich rewards of targeted advertising? Remember that, before greed delivered Google to evil, it too followed an unimpeachable business model. ePrio's technological innovation is precisely to forbid such an about turn because at all times it mechanically prevents ePrio and its licensees from accessing, let alone collecting user profile data.

Today we have looked at the principal ingredients behind the recipe. Next week we shall see how to make it palatable.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .............. Unwanted Messages Migrate From Computer to Cellphone, by Laura M. Holson (New York Times Times) - May 10, 2008
  • (**) ............ Inherent risks of a locked-down cyberspace, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - April 24, 2008
  • (***) ......... Facebook Agrees to Devise Tools to Protect Young Users, by Brad Stone (New York Times) - May 9, 2008
  • (****) ...... Messages on the move, by Paul Taylor (Financial Times) - May 9, 2008
  • (*****) .... Craig (of the List) Looks Beyond the Web, by Noam Cohen (New York Times) - May 12, 2008
  • (******) .. Craigslist battles to maintain independence, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - May 12, 2008
  • (1) The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain (Yale University Press) - 2008, 342 pages
  • (2) IBM's dominance lasted from 1955 to 1989 and Microsoft's from 1990 to 2007. My reckoning is subject to an error margin of a couple of years.
May 2008
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