When The Guardian recently interviewed Google co-founder Sergey Brin as a teaser for its weeklong series of articles about the "Battle for the Internet," the publication got a good headline out of it: "Google's Brin: threats to web freedom 'greater then ever.'"
A perfect attention-getter for what looks like a good week of meaty Internet freedom topics. While they do seem to be missing the most important Internet freedom topic - the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) coming up in December in Dubai - the topics they have chosen are about real threats to what most of us see as the freedom of the Internet.
The sub-headline on the Brin interview is, "Threats range from governments trying to control citizens to the rise of Facebook and Apple-style 'walled gardens.'" This, coincidentally, ties in just about perfectly with the theme of Day 3 - "the new walled gardens." In its article about the interview, The Guardian writes, "The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, [Brin] claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry's attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of 'restrictive' walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms."
In what can only be described as hyperbole, Brin said that he would not have been able to create Google if Facebook had already existed. A profoundly silly thing to say. Even today, with its hundreds of millions of users, Facebook is a very, very small part of the Internet. I happen to think that it would be better for the average Internet user if Google were able to crawl and index the non-private parts of Facebook since I find it hard to locate anything there, but Google finds plenty to tell me about when I search for topics of interest or a shirt to buy.
The other area of hyperbole concerns Apple and its supposed "stifling innovation and balkanizing the web." Brin is not the first to cry foul about Apple's control over what programs can be run on its iOS devices, including the iPhone and iPad. This complaint was also a theme of Jonathan Zittrain's "The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It."
This may be a real complaint about Apple iOS devices, but it is not an issue with Apple OS X devices -- you can download and run anything you want to, though a security feature in Mountain Lion may make it a bit harder to do so in the future. Even if it is a real complaint, it does not hurt enough people enough to cause anyone but the purists to complain -- it's hard to justify a position that Apple inhibits iOS innovation when the Apple iOS App Store includes more than a half million applications.
While, as a purist, I'd like to see more ability to create and load applications on iOS devices, it only takes a quick glance at the Android world to see how messy that can quickly get. What I really want to see is an iPad-like device that runs OS X but can also run all the iOS applications. Maybe a MacBook Air with a fold-over screen so it could be used both ways. That combination is one that should worry Brin, but not for Internet openness reasons.
Disclaimer: Harvard is generally not seen as an institution that worries all that much, at least about how people perceive it, so the above commentary is mine, not the university's.