Major Computing Entities as Public Goods

What if you went to drive to work one day and the highway on ramp was closed, and a big sign across it said “Highway is closed. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Well, you would find your way to a different highway entrance. But say that one was closed as well.Then, you check around and find out that all the highways in your state are closed because the state decided to close them. No more highways for you.

Or, one day you go to check the mail and there is a single post card, and nothing else, in your mail box. The post card reads “The United States Postal Service has permanently suspended operation. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a nice day.”

Or one day you go to turn on the TV and … well, never mind, you get the point.

This morning I received an email from Socialite, a software application, telling me that the software app would not be developed further, could no longer be updated, and was no longer for sale. The main reason for Socialite’s demise is summarized in this text from their web site:

In 2012 Twitter announced API changes and made it clear that traditional Twitter clients, such as Socialite, should not be developed. Some of these new rules made developing Twitter support in Socialite 2 impossible, so after much deliberations we stopped the development of Socialite 2.
End-of-life of Google Reader in 2013 was the last nail in the coffin of Socialite, as without it Socialite loses much of its appeal.

Now, I don’t use Socialite, so this does not matter to me, but it is part of a larger problem that has been a difficulty for everyone. First, with respect to Twitter, it seems to me that Twitter does change its API now and then, which in and of itself causes havoc in the development community. Furthermore, it seems that these changes in Twitter API are not necessarily improvements, but rather, sometimes involve removal of functionality. One could even argue that Twitter has a policy of changing, and sometimes even “breaking,” it’s API in order that software projects that make use of it no longer work.

I remember a few years back when Twitter was still pretty new and there were all sorts of great ideas for using the Twitter environment to do things like citizen science. But it seems to be the case that any long term use of Twitter, especially if that use requires use of the API (but even if it does not), isn’t worth attempting because any investment one puts into the project could be obviated at any time by Twitters policy. That policy, it seems, is “Innovate with Twitter at your own risk.”

The second part of this is, of course, Google Reader being shut down by Google. This is a little different. I might be wrong, and do correct me if so, but Twitter seems to be somewhat arbitrary in its API changes, and seems to do very little to support and encourage development with its framework. Google, on the other hand, seems to encourage development of projects and activities based on its services. Nonetheless, a lot of people were surprised when the widely used Google Reader, which served as a key component of many development projects, was axed. Getting rid of a project few people use and that seems to not have really taken off is one thing (and Google has done that a number of times, which is an obviously likely outcome of diverse innovation which Google seems to do). But Twitter is not Google. Twitter is the kind of project that could easily have been one of many services offered by a company like Google. Twitter, when it changes itself in a way that destroys functionality, is not dropping support for one of many projects. It is making itself irrelevant and annoying as a tool for incorporation in other projects.

So, what is the difference between roads and mail service on one hand and Twitter and Google on the other? The former are public goods, funded publicly and regulated by the government. Similar projects exist in most countries around the world and they integrate across national boundaries. The latter are projects of private companies that have every right to change their services, restrict use, or even shut down entirely.

Amazon is similar. Over time, Amazon has become one of the major, if not the major, supplier of two things one does not usually associate with a book store: Servers and cash registers. If you use a service that requires computer servers and/or storage of data, such as Netflix, you may well be using Amazon indirectly because they provide servers for a gazillion clients. When a bunch of Amazon servers go down, the Internet can choke majorly, though fortunately this happens rarely. Similarly, when you make an on line purchase at any on line company other than Amazon, there is a reasonable chance that you are using Amazon indirectly, as they provide the on line purchasing system to a lot of other vendors. And, now and then, you might even buy a book from Amazon.

When Amazon decides to change what it does or how it does it, which they can do arbitrarily within the range of existing contracts, a lot of things can, potentially, change. A minor example of this happened recently to those of us based in Minnesota, when Amazon, not by necessity but simply to make a point, shut down associates in the North Star State. That was part of my income stream (though a very small part, I quickly add) and Amazon simply sent me an email one day saying that this would no longer be a thing, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Twitter, Amazon, Google, and similar things are like the railroad, mining, and lumber companies of yore, run by a small number of highly influential individuals who happen to be in charge by a combination of luck and whatever else makes you one of those people. The thing is, these corporations effectively serve as public goods, just like our roads, our power grid, our water and sewage systems, our public mail service, our fire departments, etc. but they are not public entities.

At the moment, we who use the Internet, software, etc. are at risk of the arbitrary decisions of a handful of modern Robber-Barons who got into their present position for reasons other than being thoughtful, sensitive, public servants. All hale the free market.

Is there anything that can be done about this? Possibly. Here are a few ideas.

1) The US Senate can pass a resolution requiring Obama to bomb Twitter. That would not solve anything, and of course it can’t really happen, but the debate in the Senate would be high entertainment.

2) The government can take over Amazon, Google, Twitter and a few other companies, sort of like how it took over the companies that built roads and canals (and to a lesser extent, railroads) in days of yore.

3) A version of the government takeover in which the government doesn’t really take over but “authorities” are created, like the ones that handle ports, airports, etc. today (those entities were originally private, in many or most cases).

(These two options, 2 and 3, seem impossible, many will think they are bad ideas. And they will be bad ideas right up until the moment Google is about to go bankrupt or is embroiled in some sort of scandalous legal difficulties of some kind, and a “bailout” is needed. A thing like Google will never need a bail out of course. Like banks. And car manufacturing companies. They would never need a bail out either.)

4) Alternative services, like Amazon, Google, Twitter, etc. can be developed by non-profits using an OpenSource GPL-like model. Those services would probably not be big, or widely used. But they would be there. Then, one day, when the big players falter or become too annoying in one area or another, the OpenSource alternatives can grow a little here and there, and eventually, become the norm.

5) See below (this is where you put your ideas in the comments):

Comments

  1. #1 pete
    September 10, 2013

    The problem is everyone is already using these services. An alternative open source Twitter would have a hard time getting subscribers because possible subscribers are already on Twitter and nobody is on the alternative form.

  2. #2 dean
    September 10, 2013

    I remember a few years back when Twitter was still pretty new and there were all sorts of great ideas for using the Twitter environment to do things like citizen science.

    Indeed. I knew of several starts on interesting ways to use Twitter in classes – Purdue was, at one time, doing some interesting things with it in some classes. Many of the changes Twitter has made has ended those discussions, not because the changes were impossible to deal with, but the “promise” (read that as likelihood) of more future changes made the prospect of maintenance and adaption unappealing.

    The US Senate can pass a resolution requiring Obama to bomb Twitter. That would not solve anything, and of course it can’t really happen, but the debate in the Senate would be high entertainment.

    I would not be surprised to find out that there are some clowns who would consider that possible. I’m not sure how so many of the current crop of law and policy makers can seemingly be so ignorant of the powers and dangers of today’s technology and social media, but they are.

  3. #3 dean
    September 10, 2013

    And speaking of being ill-equipped to use technology, this bonehead screws up a blockquote tag. My apologies.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 10, 2013

    Fixed

  5. [...] Laden from ScienceBlogs asks what the difference is between physical public goods, like roads and water, and Internet goods [...]

  6. #6 Bob Robertson
    September 11, 2013

    What a disaster. Maybe the meaning of “power” is unclear:

    None of these private firms can punish you for not using their service.

    None of these private firms can punish you for not paying for their service.

    None of these private firms can prevent anyone and everyone from competing with them on any metric, with the caveat that the MONOPOLY power, government, does grant some benefits of monopoly on these firms by granting them “corporation” status.

    None of these firms has power over you. Yet you argue that govt, the institution WITH POWER OVER YOU ought to get involved and invest these firms with power?

    Hell no! You don’t like the road, use another. Oh, you can’t, because it’s a GOVERNMENT MONOPOLY. Ready for there to be no Diaspora, because Facebook has a govt granted monopoly?

    Competition after the government abolished its monopoly on the “internet” in 1993 is what has allowed all these great services to evolve and grow. To assume that such innovation will continue if that monopoly power is reasserted is to ignore not just history, but basic economics.

    Maybe you’re too young to remember what it was like living with a monopoly telephone provider. Looking at the cheap flat-rate ubiquitous service I have now, I do NOT want to go back!

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    September 11, 2013

    Actually, I was thinking of independent non-profit foundations or authorities. And I do remember Ma Bell. I was the kid everyone wanted to come over to their place to hook up their unauthorized phones.