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Stop the Walled Garden!

Posted by Ian Elwood on January 15th, 2008

Many of today's new dot-com corporations, like Facebook and LinkedIn, make money by building "walled gardens" and programs that cond­uct "data mining" to take advantage of casual users surfing the web who are signing up in their millions for the numerou­s popular "free" social network sites. ­(Facebook refuses to reveal its profits but is rumored to be worth $15 billion.)

(A walled garden refers to a media strategy that compels users to one stay on their service. Data mining is the practice of collecting large amounts of personal information on website users by the site itself.)

­While Apple's iPhone unabashedly locks users into using AT&T cell phone service, sometimes the strategies are more subtle. FaceBook, the popular social network site, restricts the functionality of their site so that it is easy to remain on facebook.com, while making external linking and emailing difficult. LinkedIn, another social network site, doesn't allow users to delete their profile without contacting customer service.

All of these tactics seek to make it easier for companies to collect information on individuals, with the sole purpose of creating consumer profiles for targeted advertising. The reason is simple: they make their money from the advertisers who will pay to get a captive audience (the kind they were once guaranteed on newspapers and TV) who might buy their products.

It is possible that these companies will soon sell their inventions for vast profits in the same way that YouTube and MySpace did, by taking advantage of ordinary people who would probably not pay for their services unless they were completely free. But activists say that the the Web has enormous potential to be a digital commons, if we assert our rights to use it for purposes other than buying and selling.

An activist group named Freespeech.org has put together a video that they are using to promote their "It's Our Web" campaign. The video, which spoofs the Transformers, is pretty entertaining, and manages to fit some complicated ideas about Internet user freedom into an accessible format. The underlying message of the video is a good one: the Internet is a medium that is best if it remains free. Restricting access to information is a taboo among Wikipedians, Slashdotters, bloggers and Gnubies alike because the free flow of information is what has driven the collective production responsible for the Web as we know it. ­­