Anyone who has taken even a modicum of history will remember the age of the Robber Barons in the United States. What it boiled down to in exceedingly simplistic terms was vast amounts of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few extremely powerful businessmen. It was a wealth and power accumulated by whatever means necessary and lead to increasing monopolistic activity that ended up with the government having to step in and break up this monopolies.
The most powerful Robber Barons were the industrialists who first controlled the railways that provided the majority of continental travel and transfer of goods around the country. This same type of predatory types of businesses practices occurred with the fledgling oil industry (Standard Oil and the Rockefeller family) which brought in a whole new flock of robber barons.
Today the idea of robber barons might seem a rather foreign concept but the reality is that we could very well be seeing the creation of a whole new set of Robber Barons – The Internet Robber Barons. Unlike the industrial robber barons before them though this generation of the Internet Robber Barons are operating in two different realms. The first are the corporations that control the how, why and where of accessing the the web whereas the second and maybe even more insidious group are those collecting and keeping every bit of data on the web.
Whether it be Google who’s stated mission is to index all the information in the world through to Facebook who is collecting one of the largest databases in the world on human thought, behavior and interaction the idea is to lock that all away in computers that they control.
The Electronic Gatekeepers
The Internet is one of mankind’s greatest achievements to date. The changes it has wrought on our society are only just beginning to be felt and even at this point there is a feeling that this beginning is only a tsunami of change yet to come.
As incredible as what the present provides and the future portends it all hinges on one simple thing – ease of access. This ease of access though covers many different areas but in the end they are controlled by those corporations that hold the keys to tollbooths we all have to pass through in order to be a part of something that is quickly moving from a luxury to that of being a necessity.
Whether it be via means like cable, DSL or even WiFi the giant telecommunications, and increasingly media providing, companies can control who can access the Internet, how they can access it, for how long they can access it, and increasingly what they can access. With control of access held in the hands of a few companies; which grow fewer with each acquisition and merger, consumers have increasingly little voice in what is suppose to be the vehicle of free distribution and sharing of information.
Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica had an excellent post that looked at the era of robber barons of the past and echo a nerve racking similarity to what we face now and will continue to face well into the future. In the post he wrote the following:
In many ways this story is far field from our contemporary debates about network management, file sharing, and the perils of protocol discrimination. But the main questions seem to remain the same—to what degree will we let Western Union then and ISPs now pick winners and losers on our communications backbone? And when do government regulations grow so onerous that they discourage network investment and innovation?
Already we are seeing a shift towards the consolidation of access provider and content creator with the recent deal where Comcast, one of the largest Internet access providers in the US, is buying controlling interest in NBC a national content producer. There is no doubt now that this Pandora’s Box has been opened that other access providers will look to do the same thing or possibly the content producers looking to control the access by purchasing access controllers.
In either case this consolidation doesn’t bode well for the consumer and we are forced to stand by as this new set of Robber Barons consolidate their position and power.
Information is power and we willingly hand it over
As worrisome as the consolidation of power and the ability to control access to the Internet is falling into the hands of fewer and fewer companies there is always the stop-gap measure of government intervention. As in the past when the public outcry has gotten loud enough the government has been forced to step in and break up this type of power base.
Unfortunately there is no such remedy when it comes to the accumulation of data in the hands of a few powerful companies. Companies who give the illusion of altruistic reasons for spending millions upon millions of dollars to supposedly store all this data collected every minute of the day.
Except there is nothing altruistic in this apparent madness because these companies have taken one of the modern axioms to heart. Information is power.
The one problem up until the increasing popularity of the web, specifically social media and all the data collection tools hidden under the guise of names like Twitter, Facebook and a continually growing number of tools, was that while storage of the data was relatively cheap; and getting cheaper all the time, the act of collecting the data was expensive. Collecting data on the scale never before imagined would require armies of people working non-stop to collect and input all that information.
Enter user-generated content.
From uploading images to Flickr, to non-stop transmission of 140 character tidbits of information, to creating and maintaining the world’s largest encyclopedia this work could be done by the average person – and all for free.
Even though there are many hopefuls that are dreaming to be the next Facebook, the next Google, or the next Wikipedia the fact is that as we progress forward the chances of this happening become slimmer and slimmer. In effect all the world’s information is very rapidly coming under the control of a few increasingly powerful companies and no amount of warm and fuzzy social media juice is going to dethrone them.
A new generation of Robber Barons are being created. A generation who will in effect control how it is shared and who can have access to it as well as controlling how much of that information they will be allowed to see, read or use. They will also control the value of that information and like everything else in the world it will have a price on it – a price which they control.
The open and ubiquitous web
As much as we might like to believe in the illusion of an open web that can be access by everyone in the world from anywhere in the world by any possible method the reality is that right now, and for much of the foreseeable future, this ideal is nothing more than a pipe dream.
The new Robber Barons are coming to town and as history has shown us nothing good can come of it. Yet we are handing them the keys to the vaults without asking ourselves if this is such a good idea. This unfortunately will only result in us once again repeating history – a history that should have been our warning signs instead of our tombstones.