Corporations Are The New Governments of the Internet
April 23, 2014
In the offline world, there are a number of public services running in the background to keep our society running smoothly. Things like street lights, policemen, waste management and sewage.
We use many of these services on a daily basis, but we don’t really think about where they come from or how they’re managed. We just pay our taxes and let the government deal with it.
Similarly, in the online world, there are services running in the background that form the backbone of our online ecosystem and allow us to communicate with one another. Services like Google Search, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Most of these “public services of the Internet” are housed by just a couple of corporations.
Both Google and Facebook have been described as search and social utilities, respectively. Facebook, in particular, took great pains to rebrand themselves from a “social networking site” (product) to a “social utility” (service).
If government’s role is, at least in part, to support the functional backbone services of our society, these corporations have become our de-facto governments.
Acquisitions are often spoken of somewhat sneeringly in tech - a soft landing for companies who couldn’t make it on their own. But there’s another narrative there for certain types of acquisitions, especially the higher-value ones.
These companies were doing just fine in terms of audience and reach, but they never really figured out the revenue-generating piece of their business. So they sold to a corporation, who would sponsor their service so that it could continue to serve society while being managed by a centralized power.
The difference is that Google and Facebook are structured as public corporations, and legally speaking, a corporation’s job is to deliver value to their shareholders, not to organize the people. Companies like Google and Facebook might serve the same purpose online as government entities offline, but they are not - cannot be - a neutral entity. Even if they wanted to be.
I’m glad that Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”, and I believe they and Facebook are doing their best to step into their role as governing bodies, bringing similar services together to run more efficiently by combining management. But it shouldn’t ever be a for-profit corporation’s job to serve the role of public government.
The issue may be forced sooner than we expect, because the next wave of Internet communication - ephemeral and anonymous apps - do not collect data on their users. The old advertising models don’t work as easily on these products as their predecessors.
So the next wave of communication may not just be about whether Whisper or Secret wins the anonymity game, but also how we incubate those services on the Internet.
Is it going to be just another corporate acquisition? Or can we envision something different?