Tuesday, December 20th, 2011
33

The Google Goblins Give Firefox a Reprieve–But What About the Open Web?

Data from StatCounter.

Did you know that most of Firefox's budget comes from Google? That is because Google pays the Mozilla Corporation, the for-profit arm of the Mozilla Foundation, a share of ad revenue gained by displaying Google as the default Firefox search engine. By most, really, one means "almost all": in 2010, 84% of Mozilla's royalty revenue came from Google, and royalties counted for $121 million of the Foundation's $123 million in income. Pretty good sugar.

The agreement expired in November. (It first expired in 2006, was renewed through 2008 and then again through 2011.) The rapid growth of Google's Chrome browser threatened the survival of Firefox. There was no obvious need for Google to continue to subsidize a principal competitor. This caused much handwringing—until this afternoon, when Mozilla announced, at last, that it had signed a "new agreement" to keep Google as its default search partner for another three-year period.

Few of us have ever paid for a browser, so it's hard to think of this in terms of ordinary business competition, but that is in fact what it is. And to the victor will belong the spoils of the enemy. With three years of deal in place, the prospects for the (sort-of) nonprofit Mozilla browser look better. And what happens beyond that?

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In an ideal world—an ideal world which will apparently exist until at least 2015!—we'd be able to continue to search the Internet ad-free—or at least, browse ad-free. This is a public good that affects everyone; I, for one, would welcome a government initiative to produce an ad-free, not-for-profit search engine; an ad-free, not-for-profit digital library. We have the resources but not the political will to make things like this happen; understandably enough, since the political will is difficult to muster in an America where about half of our "representatives" represent not their constituents, but their corporate masters.

Nobody who uses the Internet will deny that web users owe a debt to the engineers of Google. At the same time, Google has grown dangerously big for its colossal britches. Right now, in addition to its search engine, Google owns YouTube, Chrome, Google Books, Blogger, Picasa, Feedburner and Gmail and God knows what else, that's off the top of my head. Google bought at least 26 companies in 2011, across a broad spectrum of business activities. Google's ambitions do not stop there; their biggest acquisition so far, at $12.5 billion, was this August's purchase of Motorola Mobility; they'll be making proprietary phones and tablets next (though it's said this purchase was made in order to secure the zillions of patents owned by Motorola). There's no end to their resources, and correspondingly no limit to their attempts to dominate of every aspect of our lives online—which, increasingly, means our lives, period. Do we really want a single profit-making entity in control of this much of the Internet?

Google recently paid for a study carried out by Accuvant which concluded that Chrome is the "safest" browser against malicious attacks. And doubts arose not only because of the sensitivity of the recent negotiations between Mozilla and Google; the study drew criticism for having perhaps been specially designed to favor Chrome at the expense of Firefox.

But here we are, with Mozilla's main income stream extended again. It gives Mozilla three years to grow the foundation's fund further and look at new options. Meanwhile, one thing Google can do, for better or for worse, is spend money and not much notice doing so.

* * *

A substantial number of the Internet honchos with whom I spoke during this period didn't seem worried about the future of Firefox—partly because the mobile browser market is dominated by the open source WebKit rendering engine and its derivatives, which include Android as well as Safari and Chrome, and mobile is the future, everyone seems to think. Furthermore, Microsoft and its Bing search engine were surely poised to replace Google's alliance with Mozilla. Certainly there have been tentative moves in that direction already. (In addition, the Mozilla Foundation has a good amount of cash on hand.)

But even Android is not so open source as we've been led to believe; Google seems to be trying to have it both ways, playing the part of public benefactor, enjoying the open source "we're the good guys" PR while maintaining what amounts to very tight control over the software's development (here's a good chart illustrating how).

Open source doesn't necessarily preclude corporate control. Nowadays most open source code is produced by professional software developers working for big companies. Times have changed since Linus Torvalds first set out to create an unpatented and unpatentable operating system; as of 2006, two percent of the current Linux kernel had been written by Torvalds himself.

Jimmy Wales called it. "I think Firefox still has a strong negotiating position," Wales, founder of Wikipedia, wrote in an email. "I think Google won't let them go. Bing is ready and raring to go, well funded, and the aggregate share of the browser market held by all versions of Firefox is still 25.3% according to Statcounter. Does Google really want Bing front and center for hundreds of millions of users?"

A good point, except that Bing sucks so hard it draws blood. You can't sort standard search results by date in Bing. There is somewhat less SEO pollution than there is in Google search results but, big deal, when Google is apt to return ten or fifteen times the number of relevant results that Bing does, and date-filtered if you want. Bing's news results are anemic compared to Google's. There is no blog search function at all. And let's not even get into Google Books, which, I mean, that alone. If I were Google, I can quite easily imagine not caring two pins about Bing, at least in is current state.

It's hard to see how an alliance in 2015 between Bing and Firefox would benefit Mozilla much, or harm Google. If it is a revshare deal like the Google one, it's beyond likely that Mozilla's revenues will plummet anyway, because Firefox users will quickly learn to hop over to the Google website for their searches, leaving Bing without much rev to share.

* * *

So what, right? Why should we care about this? Well, we should care because these huge companies—Google, Amazon and to a lesser extent, Facebook—are increasingly in a position to wreck the Internets we've come to love and rely upon over the last 20 years. When the benefits that accrue to citizens come into conflict with the profit-making ambitions of the corpocracy, it has long been clear who will lose, absent an almighty fight. The unstable future of a dominant nonprofit, open-source browser is cause for concern to anyone interested in the preservation of the open web.

What is meant, exactly, by this phrase, "the open web"? Kip Hampton, author and Perl wizard, says it means a combination of three factors:

1) Free and open source servers and publishing tools, which means you don't need money to publish web pages, provided you have Internet access;

2) Transport protocols and other technical specifications that are not encumbered by patent or copyright claims (so that tools like browsers, servers, etc. can be freely implemented by anyone who is willing to put in the time to develop them); and

3) The general assurance that connecting to the Web means the ability to connect to all of it, without some intervening public or private authority filtering/blocking/throttling access to sites and other resources they don't like.

There are a lot of potential choke points there that could be exploited by a monopolistic corporation—one, say, in absolute control of browsers and search at the same time. In the U.S., attempts to kill the open web are being made not by political forces, but by forces intent on making you pay (or does that maybe come to the same thing?). Let's follow this out.

As Chrome gains the monopoly it seeks in the browser market—Chrome 15 just now became more popular than Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox, by some counts—that will create a very different set of problems from those posed by the earlier dominance of Microsoft's IE browser. Microsoft, unlike Google, never managed to stake out a controlling position in the search business; the nature of search is such that it automatically affects both online retail and social networks to a significant degree.

Even today, business software is Microsoft's bread and butter. Once Microsoft has sold you a copy of Windows or Office, that's it, you don't pay for it again until a new and useless set of upgrades comes along to be shoved down your throat. That is a very old-school manner of going about things that is liable to break down in the nearish future.

Because, in stark contrast, Google's business is the flow of information. When you watch a video on YouTube, Google makes money; on every Google search you perform, Google makes money; when you check your Gmail, even, Google makes a tiny bit of money, because there is an ad on there (for example, the one I just saw for the DeVry for-profit "university," which when you think about it, this whole thing is liable to make you pretty ill, one way and another, because you can't help but think, look, wouldn't it be better to pay something for these services, so maybe I wouldn't be a party to all these underprivileged kids getting tricked into a lifetime of hock to a load of tax-avoiding for-profit jerk-offs?).

Anyway, the point here is that Google’s true business is not search, but advertising. More than 96 percent of Google's $29 billion in revenue last year came directly from advertising. Google makes more from advertising than the whole country's newspapers combined. But Google News isn't producing a newspaper; it's aggregating and distributing and sometimes even propagating the results of work done by now-starving newspapers.

So. Ugh! The real question is, once they've got us by the cojones, what happens next?

Google does not have to stay free forever. (Free of charge, I mean. They are plenty free in the sense of unconstrained, what with their roaring Niagara of lucre and their eight corporate jets.) There is nothing to stop Google charging us for their services tomorrow.

We've never had to pay for a search engine yet, but if Chrome should take over completely, or nearly so, from Firefox and IE, that is a not-at-all-unlikely scenario. Google could absolutely forbid its search engine to any browser other than Chrome, for example, and if Google search maintains its absolute dominance—likely, for the foreseeable future, given that not even Microsoft with all its bazillions has succeeded in launching a viable competitor—no browser that literally does not include Google search would be usable, really. At that point Google could institute a paywall, of some sort. I think, really, would institute a paywall.

But that's not even the worst thing that could happen if Chrome were to achieve more than, say, an 80% market share. The worst thing is that then Google would be in a position to determine even more basic aspects of our ability to communicate on the web. (Theoretically, they threaten the open web even now, for they may conceivably be able to control who is able to see what websites just by shutting undesirables out of the Google search engine—or by promoting desirables to the top of results.)

Google seeks to host every document you write and every email you send, they want to show you every book, host your blog, host your photos, answer all your questions. Google offers, apparently, a competitor to Groupon. What the heck. I do not want the entire Earth to be blanketed in products made by Google, Apple, Amazon or any other soi-disant "builder" of "cool applications."

But that's what nearly of all today's other capitalists have done: exploit every advantage until it screams in pain, at all times. Not to have a solid business offering a good product at a fair price, not to be one among many, but to Take All and be the Winner.

Google search is the one indispensable Google product. There are tolerable alternatives to Gmail right now, and to YouTube, and there are more-than-tolerable alternatives to all the rest of Google's offerings so far. That means that if they get too greedy, we can vote with our mice; we're the assets, clicking and clicking, and we can take our clicks elsewhere.

But what happens when there's nowhere left to click to? Ruin is what happens then. Things get more and more expensive and difficult, and quality crashes and burns.

Exhibit A: Facebook

The best days of Facebook are far behind it. When was Facebook's best moment? I asked these all these youngs. One recalled, "Let me see, I was a freshman, in 2006" (causing me to inhale gin and tonic right up into my brains, practically). In 2006, because that was when you first got to put pictures up, she explained; before that, it had been just the one profile picture that you could have. "Before chat," said another.

For me, the charm of Facebook ended when my list of favorite books disappeared. The astonishing thing about the original lists of favorite things on Facebook was that you could instantly see anyone else in the Facebook land who was interested in anything on your own list. It was so surprising to discover this. Really popular things would show tens of thousands of devotees, but so many times, there would be just ten, or 100, or even two. Once in a while it would be a friend, or a friend of a friend, who shared a hitherto unknown and unsuspected taste for The Lost Scrapbook or the solo works of Yukihiro Takahashi. A magical thing. I friended a couple of complete strangers just because they were fellow Thurber freaks. These connections were random, unmonetized, unmediated. We can still do this on the Internet now—on Twitter, say, the new home of random and improbable connections—but not on Facebook. Not any more.

One day, my list went up in smoke. Poof! Perhaps there had been some warning, but I missed it, I visited but rarely. I had no backup list; it emerged that you would have to start over. Then, I was shocked to find, the new system accepted only recommendations linking to these Fan Pages that are anything but places for serendipitous connections: they're just marketing. Even when you've already met someone over a book you both like, there is a piece of the transaction to be got, if only in the form of a couple of Sponsored Posts on the right edge of the screen. Every day Facebook grows more suffocated with advertising; each interaction, each game, each moment you spend on Facebook is more and more clearly becoming like an ad-stuffed magazine, only you and your friends have to write all the editorial yourselves.

Facebook continues to "own" every bit of personal, private information we've ever put on there. As a nineteen-year-old Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg offered other people's private information (gathered from Facebook's earliest incarnation) to a friend. I have all these thousands of emails, pictures, SMS, he bragged. "What? How'd you manage that one?" asked this name-redacted friend. Zuckerberg replied, "They trust me — dumb f**ks." The mystery is how anyone imagines Zuckerberg to have altered his original position by one iota. He told Jose Antonio Vargas in a New Yorker interview, "I think I've grown and learned a lot" since those instant messages.

His company's behavior indicates otherwise. The number of privacy scandals there is really shocking.

There are growing indications that people are fed up with the once-loved Facebook. Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider noted that revenue numbers recently leaked to Gawker look "a little light." Light, that is, given that Facebook looks to be coming in shy of the $4 billion in revenues it would take for them to "meet expectations" in advance of next year's IPO. $100 billion is the valuation number that has been floated for a number of months but I don't think they're going to get anywhere near that, for two reasons. One is the diminishing attractiveness of the feature set, as indicated above. Gone are the days when you could randomly locate some guy in Montana who loves The Book of Tea.

The other is that the bloom is off the rose for the youngs, as well, but in a very different way. Facebook was a novelty for twenty-somethings back in 2004; younger kids who grew up with it and are entering their twenties now are experiencing a certain level of burnout. They had Facebook all the way through high school, they already have two thousand "friends" and have long since grown tired of spending hours on the thing every day. For them, Facebook is liable to go the way of Hanson or Tamagotchis. It's not a new toy, but an old one.

But even if the IPO is postponed, or Facebook is forced to take the company public at a diminished valuation (like $80 billion or something!), there is no social network anywhere that is half as pleasurable or entertaining as Facebook once was, and Facebook itself has strangled the possibility of a new one developing, at least for now.

Exhibit B: Amazon

Amazon bought the first dominant rare book search engine, Bookfinder.com, in a pretty shifty-looking deal made in 1999, and then bought the next dominant rare book search engine, the Canadian Abebooks, in 2008. If you're surprised that Amazon owns Abebooks.com, that is understandable, since the word "Amazon" appears zero times on the home page of Abebooks.com. Perhaps Amazon is not very keen that we should realize that it is getting increasingly difficult now to buy a book online, new, used or rare, where Amazon is not getting a piece of the transaction. You'll be paying more, that's almost for sure, if you choose Powells or Barnes and Noble, though there are still very good deals to be had at eBay's Half.com.

Independent booksellers have been fighting tooth and claw since the late 1990s to avoid being swallowed up by corporations, but years of struggle have seen them reduced to sharecroppers. Fees for booksellers at Bookfinder were a flat $25 per month (except for really large inventories), with no commissions, but these days booksellers must pay Amazon through the nose, with a far larger monthly fee plus a hefty commission on each sale, plus they wind up eating quite a bit of shipping costs—that is, if they want the huge preponderance of online book buyers to see their inventory. And all this was deliberate. One saw it coming, even in 1996.

And this means that struggling independent booksellers have less money to spend on inventory and on restoring books, on printing newsletters and attending auctions. It means local used bookstores close. It means fewer experts know less about fewer books. It leaves us all very much poorer.

Kip Hampton articulated our current predicament very beautifully, I thought.

The concrete short-run benefit of saving $50 at the check-out overwhelms long-run concerns about what happens when the family-owned store down the street goes under [...] you can gas on 'til you're blue in the face about walled gardens, privacy issues, and dependence upon private unaccountable profiteers who can change the rules on a whim but those abstract arguments usually crumple when pitted against peoples' short-term needs.

[T]elling people they should do without some short-term benefit in order to gain a more important long-term one is a tough sell. Really, this is the heart of the challenge we face. People will flip over cop cars to stop some governmental agency from restricting their freedom but those very same people will willingly *give* that same freedom away to some private entity provided that they also get some short-term visible benefit in the process.

And so today we have Amazon, the biggest-box store of all, only the box is super far away where you won't see their slave-wage employees passing out in the heat.

They say it's an urban myth about the frog in the pan of slowly-heating water. Which I was very relieved to hear, if only because I've always found it so horrifying that anyone would have tried boiling a frog to find out. But it's a story that resonates all the same. Sometimes I feel like we're all of us in that pan, with the water having heated up to just past the steaming-Jacuzzi level.

* * *

The progress through Congress of the Stop Online Piracy Act has caused a very large number of people to sit up and take a bit more notice than usual. (SOPA has been halted for the moment in Congress, but only until Wednesday—again since canceled—but at some point there will be an attempt to weasel it through, so a call to your representative is possibly in order.)

If SOPA fails, it will be a hope-giving sign that citizens are waking up to the many dangers threatening the open web. It seems unimaginable, but it is in fact altogether possible that we won't get to keep this miraculous thing we've all built and are sharing every day.

Here is a really crazy idea. What if the global Occupy movement were to unite behind Mozilla, and other open web initiatives? For example, what if Mozilla's $100+ million Google dollars each year were to be replaced by an annual subscription paid by the many friends of the anti-corporate-greed Occupy movement around the world? You'd need 10 million people paying $10 per year, or you could have a tiered system like they have in public radio.

That is kind of how open source started in the first place, in opposition to the corpocracy. Kip Hampton described it this way:

[W]e came of age in a time when fighting the corporate stranglehold on software generally was one of *the* defining issues for anyone using or writing Open Source tools. We didn't just use (or write) OSS software because it was there, because it was popular, or because it it was free [...] there was a general agreement that we were providing an alternative to for-profit software and anything that even *looked* like it might lead to corporate control/co-option was strictly anathema. More to the point, we could just assume that everyone we collaborated with was on the same philosophical page because no-one who didn't already "get it" would even show up in the first place.

Its a different world now. People download Firefox because it's a great browser; even the most business-y business behemoths mostly use OSS server software because that's what everyone uses; proprietary scripting languages and development frameworks have largely gone the way of the dodo; yet we greybeards still act like everyone who shows up is naturally "on the team" and, thus, we don't need to explain why OSS is important.

The Occupy movement was united on the Internet. Maybe it could establish a beachhead for the survival of the open web, too.


Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

Keith Kisser (#9,714)

As long as IE continues to loose ground, we all win. That bloated piece of trash is the Internet equivalent of a disease-ridden prostitute.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@Keith Kisser
How dare you compare me to Internet Explorer.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Google is highly unlikely to do any of the things that you say. Even if it makes me a little uncomfortable each time I sign over a new piece of my life to them, their business model depends on things being "free" and open. A paywall of any sort would be a profoundly stupid move, and no one at Google strikes me as profoundly stupid.

I also cannot see Facebook going the way of tamagotchis. The $100bn valuation floating around is pure unadulterated bullshit, the service has been going downhill for ages (I work in social media, and I despise the new app system) and I certainly don't spend as much time on there as I used to, but it has become an essential piece of social infrastructure for me and many like me. The value of a network like that is incalculable, even if it is not as monetizable as its owners would like.

That said, what we need in these sorts of situations is sensible government regulation, and that is the last thing we are likely to get from a U.S. Congress bought and paid for by telecom lobbyists. We can only hope the EU will step up to the plate (and incidentally, I don't think they get enough credit for making Microsoft a much, much better company).

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@stuffisthings OK, and I haven't read MB's essay yet, but is Google supposed to be invulnerable to the threat of capture by incompetent self-seeking leadership that has dogged oh say every other human venture ever? (Which is to say, I agree with your "That said.")

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@dntsqzthchrmn Not at all, but it would take more than Chrome obtaining a dominant market share for that eventuality to become impossible to recover from. Google really has no captive consumers in the tradition of monopolies past; they depend entirely on our goodwill for the traffic that sustains their ad revenues. An evil Google would very quickly crumble into dust.

It's too easy to forget that so many of the things we take for granted now didn't exist five years ago, so in five years' time we might be taking an entirely different set of things for granted.

EDIT: (All bets are off when Google starts buying up ISPs and mobile operators…)

@stuffisthings Just so you know, YouTube is actively looking into several subscription offerings.

scrooge (#2,697)

@stuffisthings I would actually pay for google, while grumbling.

Moff (#28)

@stuffisthings: For all intents and purposes, Google has millions of captive consumers; it doesn't depend on our goodwill — it depends on force of habit, which is way more powerful. Every day for years now, millions of us have Googled and Googled and Googled so many things; that white, green, and blue page is what we imagine when we think of "the internet."

Sure, if Google suddenly instigated a per-search charge or mandatory subscription or something this week, it would be a disaster for them. But if they ever did that, there would be so many steps along the way, chief of which would be gradually introducing a seamless method of linking your web activity to your bank account. (As soon as you get used to spending money not by clicking a button on a web page, but through some process built into the browser itself, that's when they've got you.)

All that said, I think it'd be awhile before they instituted a search paywall, if they ever did. Charmie's point about incompetent leadership is well taken, but they just stand to glean a shitload of useful information by providing free searches. (Might they start tracking our activity even more seriously, though? Almost certainly.)

SeanP (#4,058)

@Moff "For all intents and purposes, Google has millions of captive consumers; it doesn't depend on our goodwill — it depends on force of habit, which is way more powerful. "

Yes, but… putting up a paywall blows "force of habit" out of the water. If you're one of the 75% of search users who's not on Chrome, and suddenly your Google search page is replaced by a notice demanding you shell out cash… well, sure, some people will just pay up. But a lot more are going flick right to Bing. Especially given that the Mozillas, IEs, and Operas of the world are just going to replace Google with some other default option.

And ultimately, there's no gradual way to do this. For one thing, I doubt that many people are interested in signing up for ways to allow various corporations to drain money out of their bank accounts even more easily. And also, at some point they'd have to throw the switch: before, your search is free; afterwards, it costs. It's hard to imagine no one's going to notice, even if Google did manage to get the keys to all of our bank accounts.

Moff (#28)

@SeanP: Seamless payment seems like a pretty obvious successor to Amazon's 1-Click or a mobile option that lets you wave your phone at the cash register. If you doubt that many folks are interested in corporations making it easier for them to spend money, I don't think you've met the American people. Right now, for instance, you hear a song on YouTube and then can follow a link to Amazon or iTunes to buy and download it. But you can bet someone is working on a way to cut that whole middle process out, so you just click once and get the song. And you can bet it'll be hailed as a much welcomed innovation when it happens.

Again, I don't think Google will ever charge for search. But if they were going to, it would be once people were more conditioned to spend money as part of the browsing experience. Even more likely, though, it would be part of a whole package of services you subscribed to from them. Still, this would be a long time coming, with a very different-looking web. And still, I think they gain more by keeping search free than they would from charging for it.

SeanP (#4,058)

"But you can bet someone is working on a way to cut that whole middle process out, so you just click once and get the song"

The key, of course, is that there's a click involved here. The question isn't whether people want buying stuff to be easy – of course they do. They don't want it to happen without their conscious choice, though.

"Again, I don't think Google will ever charge for search."

I think we're actually in violent agreement on this topic.

iplaudius (#1,066)

If you want to help open source software, get involved. If you can’t code, there are a number of things you can do:
- Create instructional materials
- Create marketing materials
- Contribute graphic design elements
- Translate for localization
- Donate money
- Test pre-release versions
- Give word-of-mouth recommendations to your friends
- Encourage the adoption of open source software in your workplace

I'd also like to encourage people to learn some coding. We're in a world where only a small minority of people really understand computers and how to control them. This is not good.

scrooge (#2,697)

@iplaudius Where do you volunteer for this?

iplaudius (#1,066)

@scrooge
Mozilla volunteer opportunities: http://www.mozilla.org/contribute/
Donate to the Mozilla nonprofit org ("join Mozilla"): https://donate.mozilla.org/page/contribute/join-mozilla?source=join_link

If you're interested helping maintain a network that enables the free and anonymous flow of information (help NGOs and individuals in hostile regimes, etc.), check out the Tor project:
https://www.torproject.org/
https://www.torproject.org/getinvolved/volunteer.html.en

Please check out the websites of your favorite open source software—there are often volunteer opportunities!

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@iplaudius
How do you "learn some coding," Plaude? I was under the impression it was an all or nothing at all thing. — Pardon my ignorance, I definitely will learn some coding; I would grow old learning ever newer things.

joeclark (#651)

@iplaudius I know you said “if,” I, Plaudius, but you need to assure us that you really aren’t trying to say “You have no right to criticize open-source software unless you yourself contribute to it” (ideally by fixing any bugs you identify all by yourself).

Some of just want to use software. Yet this never seems to be the use case critics of critics of open-source software envision. (What else are they creating the software for? Other developers?)

iplaudius (#1,066)

@joeclark Everybody has the right to criticize everything all the time! I thought that if you read this article and wanted to "do something," you could consider volunteering.

I like to read pretty much everything Maria B. writes, even when it pisses me off. I have to give her credit for taking on important and often productively controversial topics and positions.

That said, this article struck me as too alarmist and pessimistic. Not long ago, there wasn't even such a thing as a browser. Now there are many. Firefox may or may not die, but there are and will be other open source browser projects (Opera, for example). The crucial technologies underlying Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and other browsers are open source and easily adapted to new projects: for example, WebKit, Chromium, etc. The same is true for the standards and protocols: http, CSS, JavaScript, XHTML, and so forth.

When open source projects are "eaten alive" by for-profit companies—bought out and shut down, or whatever—usually the most recent version of the codebase is used as the basis of a new open-source project.

Browsers are one thing. There are already numerous and IMHO far more crucial examples of open source projects that have "sold out" to for-profit companies. In my mind, the two biggest are Java and MySQL, which are owned by Oracle. Java is everywhere; some people think that Java runs on more devices (not just personal computers) than any other language. MySQL is another biggie: it's pretty much the free database of choice, used by millions of websites. What if Oracle decides to shut down these projects? It would be annoying, but it wouldn't be the end of the world: other projects would take their place. The development community would work on interpreters and compilers for Java and databases for MySQL storage engines.

iplaudius (#1,066)

@Tulletilsynet That's a great question. Unfortunately, web development is not necessarily the best entry into programming in general. Otherwise, it'd be great, because most people have a stake in the web.

If I were going to start from nothing, I would take a class at a local college. Make sure the class is geared toward beginners and really lets you do some programming.

joeclark (#651)

@iplaudius Please address my question. Do you or do you not believe that no one has the right to criticize open-source projects unless and until they commit code to it?

Stated another way, do you or do you not believe that mere users of open-source software need to meet some sort of standard (e.g., contributing to a codebase or “volunteering”) before having any right to criticize it?

Also please explain to me who open-source software is for if not users.

iplaudius (#1,066)

@joeclark First of all, who cares what I think! Second of all, I stand by my answer: everybody has the right to criticize everything! Why should only the software developers directly involved with an open source project "have the right to criticize" that project? That doesn't make much sense!

Software is made to be used. I can't imagine what a web browser is for, if not the average user. Software projects meant for general use should engage general users in the requirements-gathering phase and in usability testing. Good software project managers will take the criticism of these users seriously.

Moff (#28)

@iplaudius: You need to send a handwritten, notarized letter to every software user, explicitly confirming that in your view they are allowed to criticize open-source software, and that you will not compel them by force to "volunteer" on open-source software projects. YOU NEED TO MAKE THIS RIGHT.

zybhjk (#22,746)

"Its a different world now… yet we greybeards still act like everyone who shows up is naturally "on the team" and, thus, we don't need to explain why OSS is important."

This is an essential point: the conflation of the two 'free's of OSS. Unfortunately, it's not 1995 and many of these projects have been forced to adapt to a world where they are valued for free cost, rather than political/technical/social freedom. Unfortunately, there is enough money in tech now that the platform technologies of today (twitter, amazon cloud services, google books) are commercial and proprietary and subject to the whims of their corporate overlords (who control your actual DATA now, too).

Google search is not just one commercial product among many; it shapes how we find, relate, and remember information.

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

"There is nothing to stop Google charging us for their services tomorrow."

And that's when I stopped reading.

Okay, not really, but it did make my eyes cross a bit. Google makes the overwhelming majority of all its money by selling search advertising and by running an ad network. Chrome? Android? Gmail? Youtube? Maybe those services break even, but most of them probably LOSE Google money. They're there to prop up search.

In a way, Google already charges you for their services by showing you their ads (and Google's ads are probably the least obtrusive ads ever – I think most people are conditioned by now to not even notice them). The more people that use Google's services and search, the more money they make from selling ads.

Limiting the number of people who can use their services, whether that's through browser limitations or through direct paywalls, would be disastrous for Google, instantly and with a vengeance. Less people means fewer ads. Fewer ads means less money.

And that's what stops and will stop Google from charging for their services.

It wouldn't even be hard for another service to supplant Google in the search market if they started to suck (by, for instance, imposing limitations or charging). Google's not like your phone company or your cable company. Nobody on the consumer level has any real investment in Google as a search engine. Just start using another site. Boom, done. You've just gone to a competitor and deprived Google of ad revenue.

Yeah, watch Google. Watch them like a hawk. But don't get tunnel vision just because they're the biggest name around. They're far from the biggest or most immediate threat to the open web.

If you want to target the biggest threats to the open web, focus on the ISPs and mobile providers like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and others. These companies routinely interfere with internet protocols, throttle connection speeds, restrict access to services and content, and routinely (on smartphones, but could easily be done on PCs, too) block access to free apps and services so they can charge you a premium for ones that don't even work as well. They do it now and they're only going to do it more in the future. And unlike a search engine, most people can't go to a competing ISP/mobile provider on a whim. There's contracts, lock-ins, sunk costs, and other things in place to keep people from doing exactly that, not to mention that while there's hundreds of other search engines, video sites, free email services, etc., most people have fewer than a half-dozen options for how to get their mobile or home internet service.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Megapol Tchotchke Oh yeah! That's why cable TV didn't work out.

You make a good point about ISPs and mobile providers, though. Crikey.

SeanP (#4,058)

@barnhouse Cable TV provided a service was entirely different from broadcast TV. Reception was better, channel selection was better, etc. If, say, ABC TV had started somehow charging for broadcast television while CBS and NBC remained "free" (or, ad supported)… that would have been the end of ABC.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@SeanP You're making my point. That's why we must ensure that we still even have NBC and CBS. Also, if ABC had enjoyed say an 80% market share, plus offered a far better product, that would be more like what I'm outlining as a foreseeable future.

SeanP (#4,058)

@barnhouse I don't think I am. First of all, although I do prefer Google myself, I certainly don't agree that it has a "far better product" than, say, Bing or Yahoo. Somewhat better, but good enough to beat pretty good, free, alternatives? Particularly when the 75% of the browsers that are not Chrome are promptly going to suggest people switch to Bing or Yahoo in the event Google starts to charge? I doubt that very much. People are quite willing to change search engines – ask Yahoo.

I think you're quite right to be concerned about the Open Web – in fact, I think that the Library of Congress or some equivalent body ought to provide a public search engine (what, have the government provide a service? I know, I'm a commie), and Facebook ought to be compelled to interoperate with other Facebook-like services. I just don't think that Google suddenly dropping its ad-driven business model in favor of some kind of subscription model is particularly realistic, given the competitive environment Google operates in. Even if they were to do so, this would constitute an Apple-like strategy of obtaining a higher profit margin on less sales… meaning there would actually be more room for other search engines to operate.

Moff (#28)

…there is no social network anywhere that is half as pleasurable or entertaining as Facebook once was, and Facebook itself has strangled the possibility of a new one developing, at least for now.

This is an interesting problem with new media: They can achieve a near-monopoly so rapidly that even when they suck, it's awfully hard to get rid of them. Case in point: craigslist, which killed classified advertising as a revenue source for newspapers, and rapidly went on to be so overrun by scammers, and then by attempts to quell the scammers, that fucking goddamn if I wouldn't gladly pay a few bucks next time I had to sell something, if there were any classifieds spot online that drew anywhere near that number of eyeballs. No one wants to compete, because cl has established itself as the dominant brand and is free; but since cl doesn't make any real money, they can't even change their pages to explain till you've dug at least three levels down why your fucking ad isn't appearing in the listings (much less come up with a sensible way to ensure that doesn't happen).

Sorry, a little off-topic.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff (Not off topic!!!)

MonsterContinent (#2,058)

Got this from Google Ad Sense team the other day:

"Hi [Redacted],

The reason ads have stopped serving to your site is because we have
noticed you have pornographic content. Please remove this content and
allow 48 hours for ads to begin serving."

There is less pornographic material on that site than on this one, unless I completely misunderstand the term.

joeclark (#651)

This thing is too long by at least half and, like everything over 200 words at the Awl, dearly needs a copy-edit.

Dougal (#12,302)

"Android is not so open source as we've been led to believe"
Oh, not this crap again… pushing this just shows an extremely simplistic view of just how much good Google is doing for us with Android.

As for Google and the open web: an open, healthy, web is exactly what Google cares about! Why do you think they employ people like Guido van Rossum, Tim Bray, Ian Hickson etc.?

If there's one corporation I'm not worried about, it's Google… which makes me wonder, what corporations does Miss Bustillos trust? Apple Inc., perhaps? Or Microsoft?
The ones that opposed the open Ogg Theora becoming a web standard, pushing the royalty encumbered h264 instead, thus preventing… Mozilla from supporting it?
And who came to the rescue and tried to solve that problem? Google, by buying On2 and opening the WebM format and adding it to Youtube (and Google _did_ have a h264 license for Chrome!).

One thing in the opposite direction: I don't know if anyone noticed, but around the time the new Mozilla agreement was signed, Adblock Plus started allowing 'non-intrusive advertising'… Google ads, possibly?

MrTVTL (#197,390)

I'm going to go ahead and declare my bias upfront…I've made money as a direct and indirect result of Google's existence. I've also made money as both a direct and indirect result of the existence of Microsoft.

Personally, I don't see where the resource exists in any nation to provide a true "free and open web", nor does anyone else. If we forget the software for a minute and focus on the hardware alone, we find associated costs. Servers cost money. Bandwidth costs money. Routers/gateways/firewalls/etc. cost money. To provide a true "free web", quite a bit of money. So to some extent, whether we like it or not, the web is not, has never been, and never will be truly free. Someone has to foot the bill.

That's why I don't have a problem with Google's business model. If they want to put ads on their products, that doesn't bug me. I don't have to use their products if I don't want to. They also run an ad publisher network (which I'm a part of). I don't have to use the ad publisher network if I don't want to…there are plenty of competitors. I don't have to use their search or GMail or Google Android or Google Docs or their app engine or any other service that they offer if I don't want to, nor does anyone else.

That's where the freedom and the openness of the web is…it's a free market. I choose what I do and don't want to do. I choose what I do and don't want to view. I choose what I do and don't want to use.

I also fail to see how Google is going to come along and destroy this free market. Their business model actually requires a free market for optimal return. Greater competition that traditionally comes from free markets = more innovation = more resources for Google to organize and share with the world = greater opportunities for ad revenue.

No open source software and no Utopian socialist desire for a "free and open web" is ever going to come close to that. It's not realistic. Things cost money, and revenue streams need to be in place to offset that. People may not want to admit or accept it, but that's the reality. Generally speaking, projects that have been "free and open source" or "free and open information" or (insert volunteer phrase here) have either traditionally hit a peak and then dropped off quickly, or been forced to add some form of revenue stream or gain VC investors.

DMOZ…not even sure what's propping that thing up, because it sure isn't going anywhere.
Firefox…the graphic basically tells the story. Each new release becomes increasingly bloated and it's only a matter of time before it collapses under its own weight. It's not growing or gaining any real market share, and hasn't for some time.
Facebook…was free, now is ad supported, and people are starting to jump ship away from it.
Mahalo…backed by Mark Cuban (among others). Enough said there (and I'm not knocking Mark Cuban).
Wikipedia…the Internet equivalent to PBS. Every six months or so, there's our friend Jimmy asking us for money AGAIN.

So this whole doomsday proclamation about the end of the Internet and the big corporate takeover is already in many ways upon us. It's not really so bad. I'm no fan of large corporate monoliths either, but in some cases they do good rather than harm.

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