The Corporate Internet

We heard in class from Prof. Zittrain that the internet began as a “collective hallucination” — a beautiful (in my opinion) idea that represents a decentralized collection of connections that has no governance and no owner. We also learned that the internet is now moving towards being privately owned; Facebook and Google, primarily, own the majority of the web that we use. Congress even called in executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter for hearings on the Russia ordeal. It’s almost as if these companies represent the general internet, and when the internet is abused, it’s time to turn to them.

The idea of the internet becoming privately owned is, to me, scary. My question to all of you is: is it inevitable? Also, where else do we see this pattern?

Prof. Zittrain drew a wonderful comparison between the movement from browsers to apps and the corporatization of the web. I would like to examine some of the history we learned in class: telecommunication began as privately owned by the phone companies (or company), and the internet represented the subversion of monopolistic ownership over communication. Then, corporate ownership began creeping back up on us, and now we have giants like Google that own far more than we know.

Personally, I believe we are seeing this same pattern in its early stages with media streaming. Netflix blew our minds with its near ability to allow us to “cut the cord” with cable. And, pardon my French, but cable stinks. Netflix was a release from the monopoly of Comcast in many areas, a break from terrible customer service from cable companies, a break from ads, a break from overpaying to have channels you don’t watch, and more. But, what is happening now? Netflix is relying mostly on its original programming, and ABC, FOX, and NBC are slowly pulling their shows from the service. Why? They own a little website called Hulu.

And now there’s talk of Disney (which happens to be owned by ABC) starting its own streaming service, just for Disney programs. Then we see HBO GO/NOW, another streaming service for just HBO shows. Amazon Prime Video pops up. Showtime has a streaming service. Starz. YouTube TV. Suddenly, if we want to watch all of the shows we like, we’re paying for multiple streaming services — many of which laughably have commercials — not unlike paying prices similar to cable in the first place.

The question is: someday, will some service come along and say, “Here’s an idea: I’ll bundle all these streaming services together for you, and you just pay me $X/month!” And there we have it: cable is back, just disguised as streaming. At that point, however, there is a natural check that keeps streaming services at bay: many people will go back to torrenting after a certain point (not me, though, and never on the Harvard WiFi!).

Just recently, Uber started allowing tip jars and online tipping — one of the major draws of Uber in its origins was that it advertised that it paid its drivers a fair wage, and tipping wasn’t required. Are Ubers just going to become the same as old school taxis (that’s right, I called them old school)?

So, what do you think? Is the privatization of the internet inevitable? Will industries always come full circle, eventually becoming the things we hated to begin with? Where else have you seen this? Is Amazon becoming anything like major retailers? Looking forward to your thoughts.

2 Comments »

  1. profsmith

    November 9, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

    1

    I can sense your emotion coming through! I think the trend toward commercialization and centralization is always going to be there, but I also think that the pendulum swings back and forth. When we get our streaming-cable future you describe, someone else will realize that there’s a real market for the next “subversion of monopolistic ownership” and people will start leaving the monopoly for the new freedom. And then the trend starts anew. You can certainly see this pattern in computing machinery over the decades.

  2. Jim Waldo

    November 12, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    2

    There are interesting swings in these services– but much as Google or Facebook or Netflix become their own monopolies, I tend to worry about the less visible monopolies. You can cancel all of your cable programming and move to the streaming services, but you (or at least I) still get your Internet from … Comcast. And there is no alternative to that. The rates are high, the service is terrible, and the bandwidth is low. But what is the alternative?

    The great thing about the Internet is that (at least so far) it is neutral with regards to content, so new services can spring up to compete with the old. But the infrastructure of the internet itself (the cables and wires) the is the foundation for that innovation has become a monopoly. It may be what is known as a “natural” monopoly (the way the phone system used to be), but that means that it needs some form of regulation and control. But we seem to be obsessed with the concentration of power in the upper layers, and so don’t look at it in the base. An odd situation.

    End of rave. Great post.

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