The open internet was built on principles of decentralization, freedom, and unfettered access. It was envisioned as a space that fostered innovation and creativity. However, there is growing concern that Google’s expanding control and influence over the web may be undermining these foundational ideals.
Consider Google’s recent proposal for a new feature called “Web Environment Integrity.” The initiative, while founded on seemingly reasonable objectives such as distinguishing genuine human users from bots, outlines a system where Google essentially becomes the arbiter of device and user environment trustworthiness. This API would have devices query Google servers, which would then provide signed tokens attesting whether or not Google deems the device as “trustworthy.”
While Google assures this mechanism comes equipped with privacy safeguards, the implications are nevertheless concerning. The power to determine which devices gain full access to certain websites, and the definition of what is deemed “trustworthy” – which could conceivably align more with Google’s interests rather than those of users or competitors – seems incongruous with the principles of open access that the web was built upon.
Google’s influence is expansive, spanning search, ads, analytics, smartphones, and more. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is now the third most valuable public company globally, trailing only Apple and Microsoft. The modern digital experience is increasingly under Google’s pervasive influence.
Moreover, Google has been steadily blurring the lines between the open web and its proprietary ecosystem. Its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project, which ostensibly speeds up sites, heavily favors Google results and ads. Similarly, Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposal was touted as a privacy improvement, even as it expanded Chrome’s ability to track conversion data.
Even Google’s internal “think tank”, Jigsaw, raises issues. Jigsaw’s research into automated methods to identify “toxic” online content could result in over-censorship if implemented without nuance. And Google’s rumored “Project Guccifer,” aimed at combating misinformation, runs the risk of being skewed by Google’s own perspective on truth.
Decentralization and freedom of access were instrumental in the explosion of creativity and innovation that the internet sparked. It is crucial, however, to ensure that no single company, even one with seemingly good intentions, gains disproportionate influence over this ecosystem. If web standards begin to excessively serve one corporate giant’s interests, they risk undermining the diversity and openness that make the internet a beacon of innovation and freedom.