The trend of today is to see the web as a large platform for exchange, information, where users reign supreme, where the power is in the hands of the people. Let’s check, shall we? Flickr proudly says they’re “A Yahoo! company”, complete with the exclamation point, Google is, in their own words “a public and profitable company focused on search services”, FeedBurner “reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice” and the good folks at Del.icio.us seems intent to stay in the dark, except for a line thanking “Completely Reliable Networks”.
See any evil there? I don’t: the licenses are very cookie-cutter (nobody can afford to launch something with any kind of guarantee, nowadays), Yahoo! has full rights to mispunctuate and purchase collaborative sites and Google better make some profits for the well being of their employees. As for Del.icio.us, they follow the good old French proverb that one better stays hidden to live happily.
I may not see evil there but I do see companies, plenty of private interests and a clear message. “We own the content and we are here to make money. If anything goes wrong, please talk to our lawyers.” Fine, great, even: it’s how the world revolves in our capitalistic societies and it looks like we’re all enjoying the perks of the system to some extent. If anything, this also says that our “freedom” and our “owning the new media” is a nice illusion.
Let’s imagine for one moment that Google decides they make enough money with selling Lava lamps and pulls the plug on search. Gone are Google maps, page ranks, folksnomy, your precious e-mail collection, your source of information. Let’s imagine Flickr, sorry, Flickr!, being a US-based company, needs to comply with laws and gets to delete every picture deemed inappropriate by the US government. Unless you keep a permanent backup of our collection, your data will go poof! with pretty much no chance to ever recover it — they do reserve the right to “remove Content and accounts containing Content that [they] determine in [their] sole discretion are unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene or otherwise objectionable.” Let me repeat, “in their sole discretion”. And what on earth is “objectionable”?
Again, nothing wrong here. But really, how much do we rely on these companies? For some of us, we couldn’t conduct business, court that special guy and remember the groceries list without these commercial services. Yet, we seem to forget any service that is commercial is subject to the decision of its owners and escapes our control. For those of us who don’t even live in the United States, we place our possessions and private lives under laws that don’t define ownership, privacy and customer protection in the same way as our national laws — which may be good or bad, depending on where we come from.
Much like a popular car surveillance system, the Internet is “Always there, always ready”. But these individual services, the ones we define as being at the core of a supposed “Web 2.0″ are not. They are commercial ventures, as unpredictable as any other profit-seeking endeavor, as subject to bankruptcy or lunatic management practices.
Here is a game: let’s say you have one day to download your pictures out of Flickr and your mail out of GMail. Can you? Do you even have access to the data? Do you still really own it?
Have we sold our most precious possession, our data, to companies? Worse, have we given it to them, along with our blessing to blend it with context-sensitive ads? Loaning it, using a specific service for a certain time is definitely OK, even if that service is proprietary, closed-source or whatever, but what about selling it, giving it away?
Is Web 2.0 about the success of a few technologies or the success of a few companies?