“Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google’s Sergey Brin,” screamed the headline in Sunday’s Guardian. The piece talks about the triple threat to the Internet from governments suppressing information, the entertainment industry’s efforts to fight piracy, and the “walled gardens” of Facebook and Apple.
Oops, Mr. Brin says in a walk-it-back Google+ post published yesterday. While mostly on-point, the story misrepresented the relative significance of each of these threats, he says.
He did not mean to imply that private companies promoting walled-off areas of the Internet are as nefarious as governments censoring information for their citizens, he said.
“Moreover, I have much admiration for two of the companies we discussed — Apple and Facebook. I have always admired Apple’s products. In fact, I am writing this post on an Imac and using an Apple keyboard I have cherished for the past seven years,” he said. “Likewise, Facebook has helped to connect hundreds of millions of people, has been a key tool for political expression and has been instrumental to the Arab Spring. Both have made key contributions to the free flow of information around the world.”
So what’s his beef? Mr. Brin worries that obstacles put in place by proprietary parts of the Internet will hinder the kind of Wild West innovation that gave rise to eBay, Amazon, PayPal and others. “Yahoo created a directory of all the sites they could find without asking anyone for permission,” he wrote. “Today, starting such a service would entail navigating a number of new tollbooths and gatekeepers.”
But that stifling of innovation is nothing compared to what governments like China and Iran are doing to the Internet. Five years ago, Mr. Brin said he didn’t believe any country could effectively restrict the Internet for long, but he says now that he’s been proven wrong.
“Regardless of how you feel about digital ecosystems or about Google, please do not take the free and open internet for granted from government intervention,” he wrote. “To the extent that free flow of information threatens the powerful, those in power will seek to suppress it.”