Saturday, June 20, 2009

Of trolls and tolls.

I just read an excellent article by Cory Doctorow about how large "gatekeeper" organizations such as Google and Amazon stifle innovation and progress.(Internet ©rapshoot: How Internet Gatekeepers Stifle Progress). However, I didn't like the fatalistic tone he took in the article so I wrote him the following e-mail:

Dear Cory Doctorow,

Again I find myself compelled to respond to one of your excellent articles yet not being able to post that reply on the blog on which it the article appeared. I find it ironic that you wrote an article lambasting gatekeepers for stifling access on a web site that is available to a limited minority of elites ( However, that is not the purpose of this e-mail.

I am writing to comment on the fatalist tone of your article. You seem to believe that once an entity has achieved what I call "practical monopoly" status (defined as: reaching a position where people go to the entity first when looking for a specific type of product or information in great enough proportions that that entity has a large and significant influence on what information people find or products they buy.) then there is nothing to be done about it other than attempt to create yet another practical monopoly. You don't seem to leave open the possibility of the public making an end run around the monopolies, completely bypassing their so-called "gates."

This is similar to the old yarn about the troll under the bridge who demanded a toll to cross. When the toll gets too high, what is to stop others from building their own bridges downstream? According to your article, the cost of building a bridge is too high. Well, then people can build ferries. If enough people build enough ferries and leave them for others to use then the troll will get no toll and will either go away or reduce the toll.

Here is the ferry I propose we build. Open standards for metadata about creative content or products available on the internet. In fact many of the pieces of our ferry are lying about on the shore already. XML, RDF, Dublin Core, OWL, The Semantic Web. With all these pieces we should be able to construct an open standard which will allow independent creators of books, music, and more to post information about their offerings on their web sites. Then lots of independent "organizer" web sites could crawl the internet searching for this metadata, index it, and organize it in any way they think their users might like. These independent web sites could offer reviews or create their own little communities based around specific genres of product. Most importantly, anyone would be able to build their own web site to do this just as anyone would be able to use a ferry left tied up along the shore.

This system could work similarly to the way that web advertising works, where payments are only made to the independent organizing site if the user clicks through and then makes a purchase. The standard would have to include metadata about the content and what standard genres it fits into. It would also have to include information as to how to the financial end of the transaction should be handled. This standard would go hand in hand with your previous idea of creating a Creative Commons type of licence for crafters. People who design the product could post the metadata on their web site, then others would know exactly how they can go about making and or selling the product.

Larger pieces of our ferry would consist of open source web-based "shopping cart" software for handling the sale of the products and payment systems such as PayPal. Naturally, many creators may choose to simply set up a "shop" on eBay, Amazon, or Yahoo! But with pre-made, easy-to-use, open-source tools many others may be inclined to set up their own independent shops on their own web sites. In effect, using the ferries we have built and tied up along the shore to cross that river and connect the creators directly to the users of the content.

So, in a way, it is not gatekeepers who stifle innovation. It is lack of innovation that stifles innovation. If the door is closed go through the window. If the window is closed get out the chain saw. ;^)

Grant S. Robertson

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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