What happens to location innovation if the Internet turns into Internets?

by Matt Ball on August 13, 2010

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In most of the world to date there is only one Internet, with service providers but no gatekeepers. This week that notion is under assault with an appeal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by Google and Verizon to consider a private Internet for paid online services and a wireless network to be maintained and regulated separately.

The ongoing issue of net neutrality has huge implications for the future of all Internet-based commerce, and perhaps particularly the move toward more and better location data that can combine with various other data feeds. The Internet has stayed primarily out of the full control of large corporations that deliver the content through their networks. We all pay for access, but there is a lot of content that we receive freely without paying tolls. Today’s Internet welcomes all comers with a good idea, but that openness may be short lived if some powerful companies have their way.

Altering the Disruptor

There’s no question that the Internet has been a positive economic engine, a driver of social change, and a disruptor of previous business models (particularly in the media space). Those old business models that have been steamrolled by the Internet would certainly have put on the brakes if they had a chance, and it feels really unseemly that we now have many large network and content players calling for a more easy means for them to profit from their own positions now that they feel that they’ve wrested control.

Giving the large networks more power will only close the door to smaller entities and would squelch the rapid innovation that is occurring. There is perhaps no better place to gauge how the Web has changed our perceptions and access to information than in the mapping space, where years of innovation have taken us from large paper fold-out maps and mapbooks to free mobile experiences on highly-capable handheld devices that can track our movements on a map and navigate us to whatever we might be searching for. This pace of change would not have happened if Rand McNally had owned and controlled the mapping Internet.

Crowd Reliance

Much of the effectiveness of the open Internet, has revolved around participation and sharing mechanism that harness the content-creation capability of the crowd. In the mapmaking space, this has been true of the OpenStreetMap movement, as well as updates for other map platforms. Most of the labor is free, and much of the data is provided for free, particularly for the many map mashups where most of these collections of content with locations upon a map are provided as free services.

If we were to move a separate Internet of paid services, then it seems likely that mapping might be one of those walled services. Turning these free services into paid services would surely be a profitable move, but what happens to compensation for the creators of this content? The volunteers would likely feel a strong disincentive to spending their spare time creating content for free that others are profiting from.

There are already some indications that the zest to create free content is waning even on today’s open Internet, but let’s not forget about the almost miraculous Haiti response where remote crowds of technologists mobilized to quickly and accurately map the country in order to ease suffering and speed recovery. This type of effort wouldn’t likely happen through a paid and controlled mapping service. Having an open Internet encourages selfless acts with the simple reward of doing meaningful things, without any bitter taste that someone else is profiting from your hard work.

Would 3D Be a Channel?

Google suggests that under their proposal the broadband providers might offer separate channels as services, such as a gaming channel or home health monitoring. I wonder if a possible channel might become an immersive 3D virtual reality and the means to catalog the Internet of things within such an environment.

Today, a rich 3D reality would certainly be “services which are not part of the Internet,” but what about the future vision of the Internet? There are amazing technological advancements happening in how we can capture, display and interact with rich 3D data. These advancement will certainly contribute to a largely 3D Internet experience in the future, but if providers get out in front of this inevitable advancement and wall off this capability into their own channels, then it will stifle the realization of this vision.

I’m heartened by the swift and hearty backlash against the plans of Google and Verizon. As they struggle to explain themselves as a result of the backlash, they seem also to be digging themselves a larger hole. The Internet has thrived to date upon the promise of future profits, and in the process it has made many a fortune to those that put a creative spin on the building blocks that are available to us all. It would be a huge shame to see these building blocks walled off and controlled, because the promise of whole new types of media and ways of interacting could be lost to the gatekeepers.


Google’s Net Neutrality Comments to the Federal Communications Commission

Take this Blog and Shove It!, By Tony Dokoupil and Angela Wu, Newsweek, Aug. 9, 2010

Facts about our network neutrality policy proposal, Google Public Policy Blog, Aug. 12, 2010

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