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Controlling the Web

Tue 15th May 2012

At last I made it to one of the Web Science debates! Today’s topic was “Is the control of the Web falling into the hands of a few big corporates?” I found it a bit hard to keep up with what was being said and what was being tweeted on the #wsdebate hashtag.

However, one thing that came up in the tweets was that control was never really defined by either of the sides of the debate. It occurs to me that there are a lot of companies that have strong influence on the Web, but few that actually have control. Really it is only the organisations that can filter and block our Internet traffic that really have control over the Web. And even then filtering Internet traffic is an expensive task (though technologically this is bound to only get cheaper), which these organisations (such as ISPs) use as an excuse for not really wanting to do it. Really then, only government and its legislation have control over what ISPs have to filter, and in a theoretical democracy (and not the one we live in) they should follow the opinion of the masses. Maybe the corporates that are a bit too friendly with government and the lobbyists that influence policy really do have some control!

There are quite a lot of companies that have influence over the Web, though. While it cannot filter your traffic explicitly, Google can temper what search results it gives you, and so many people rely on it for discovery, that it has tremendous influence. However, there are enough alternatives that if they change their algorithms too dramatically they’ll get found out.

We must not forget the influence of the browsers and their manufacturers. Browsers are effectively the operating systems of the Web world, and there’s a reason we’ve been stuck with the desktop and paper metaphors for 30 years and it’s definitely something to do with two big corporates, both of whom are major browser vendors too! You might argue that the Web is based on open standards, but it is worth noting that those “open” standards are designed by a committee consisting of members from each of those browser vendors…

I think the debate got stuck between two real questions, got to the bottom of neither really:

  1. Who truly has control over the Web?
  2. Should we be worried about big corporates abusing their influence over the Web?

From → The Web

  1. Nice discussion. I like your point about control and lack of change of Web browsers. I really feel that there is an argument, which is true for the entire Web, about the relationship between society and technological development. If you conceptualise the Web as a big network of actors (technologies, humans) working together, then some will have more control than others. This is true for all networks of activity (as it was raised in the debate yesterday – Stock markets, Governments, etc.). But the argument is how can these actors that have the control be influenced and affected, especially when they gain so much ‘force’ (in terms of economic status, influence, political ties). In addition to this, these actors seem to be tightly connected to each other (again another point raised yesterday), forming closed clusters of activity, and due to their collective force, they are controlling and shaping the direction of the network. I feel that what is happening on the Web is that these actors are becoming so tightly connected and powerful that the original purity of the Web is changing, slowly becoming a controlled, hierarchical network of actors.

    • Thanks for pointing out some of the things I missed from yesterday! It might be interesting if someone was live blogging the debates as I think they’d be quite cool to read about afterwards. I’m not sure the tweets quite capture what is being said.

      What I find interesting about the actors that have more influence or control is that it is really a societal construct, and we don’t necessarily have to do it that way. Hierarchies are put in place by people who have been successful by being top of the pyramid. The Internet and the Web started with ideals of being distributed and independent, but unfortunately someone let commercial entities in, and big business doesn’t understand anything other than hierarchies.

      I see your point about clustering of powerful entities on the web. What do you think can be done? Is it an issue? I don’t think the clustering is particularly underhand; I assume the players are fairly obvious (Google, Facebook, News Corp) so if people are unhappy with their influence, they’ll vote with their feet (after deciding if the risk is worth the reward)? Do you think the actors that are shaping the direction of the network know they are, and have some grand scheme, or is it an inadvertent side-effect of being biggest?

      • The shaping of the network is the hardest (epistemological) question to answer. from an ANT perspective, the network is only shaped by the interactions of the actors, although there is some level of inscription that the more important actors place within the network. I think the structures that have formed are just a result of the interactions between actors over the years, rather than a grand scheme to begin with. But as you said, stability of these networks only exist due to the commitments of the actors involved, change is possible, but highly unlikely due to the strengthening of ties between the influential actors….

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