The open internet once seemed inevitable. Now, as global economic woes mount and interest rates climb, the dream of the 2000s feels like it’s on its last legs. After abruptly blocking access to unregistered users at the end of last month, Elon Musk announced unprecedented caps on the number of tweets—600 for those of us who aren’t paying $8 a month—that users can read per day on Twitter. The move follows the platform’s controversial choice to restrict third-party clients back in January.
This wasn’t a standalone event. Reddit announced in April that it would begin charging third-party developers for API calls this month. The Reddit client Apollo would have to pay more than $20 million a year under new pricing, so it closed down, triggering thousands of subreddits to go dark in protest against Reddit’s new policy. The company went ahead with its plan anyway.
Leaders at both companies have blamed this new restrictiveness on AI companies unfairly benefitting from open access to data. Musk has said that Twitter needs rate limits because AI companies are scraping its data to train large language models. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman has cited similar reasons for the company’s decision to lock down its API ahead of a potential IPO this year.
These statements mark a major shift in the rhetoric and business calculus of Silicon Valley. AI serves as a convenient boogeyman, but it is a distraction from a more fundamental pivot in thinking. Whereas open data and protocols were once seen as the critical cornerstone of successful internet business, technology leaders now see these features as a threat to the continued profitability of their platforms.
It wasn’t always this way. The heady days of Web 2.0 were characterized by a celebration of the web as a channel through which data was abundant and widely available. Making data open through an API or some other means was considered a key way to increase a company’s value. Doing so could also help platforms flourish as developers integrated the data into their own apps, users enriched datasets with their own contributions, and fans shared products widely across the web. The rapid success of sites like Google Maps—which made expensive geospatial data widely available to the public for the first time—heralded an era where companies could profit through free, mass dissemination of information.
“Information Wants To Be Free” became a rallying cry. Publisher Tim O’Reilly would champion the idea that business success in Web 2.0 depended on companies “disagreeing with the consensus” and making data widely accessible rather than keeping it private. Kevin Kelly marveled in WIRED in 2005 that “when a company opens its databases to users … [t]he corporation’s data becomes part of the commons and an invitation to participate. People who take advantage of these capabilities are no longer customers; they’re the company’s developers, vendors, skunk works, and fan base.” Investors also perceived the opportunity to generate vast wealth. Google was “most certainly the standard bearer for Web 2.0,” and its wildly profitable model of monetizing free, open data was deeply influential to a whole generation of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Of course, the ideology of Web 2.0 would not have evolved the way it did were it not for the highly unusual macroeconomic conditions of the 2000s and early 2010s. Thanks to historically low interest rates, spending money on speculative ventures was uniquely possible. Financial institutions had the flexibility on their balance sheets to embrace the idea that the internet reversed the normal laws of commercial gravity: It was possible for a company to give away its most valuable data and still get rich quick. In short, a zero interest-rate policy, or ZIRP, subsidized investor risk-taking on the promise that open data would become the fundamental paradigm of many Google-scale companies, not just a handful.
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Web 2.0 ideologies normalized much of what we think of as foundational to the web today. User tagging and sharing features, freely syndicated and embeddable links to content, and an ecosystem of third-party apps all have their roots in the commitments made to build an open web. Indeed, one of the reasons that the recent maneuvers of Musk and Huffman seem so shocking is that we have come to expect data will be widely and freely available, and that platforms will be willing to support people that build on it.
But the marriage between the commercial interests of technology companies and the participatory web has always been one of convenience. The global campaign by central banks to curtail inflation through aggressive interest rate hikes changes the fundamental economics of technology. Rather than facing a landscape of investors willing to buy into a hazy dream of the open web, leaders like Musk and Huffman now confront a world where clear returns need to be seen today if not yesterday.
This presages major changes ahead for the design of the internet and the rights of users. Twitter and Reddit are pioneering an approach to platform management (or mismanagement) that will likely spread elsewhere across the web. It will become increasingly difficult to access content without logging in, verifying an identity, or paying a toll. User data will become less exportable and less shareable, and there will be increasingly fewer expectations that it will be preserved. Third-parties that have relied on the free flow of data online—from app-makers to journalists—will find APIs ever more expensive to access and scraping harder than ever before.
We should not let the open web die a quiet death. No doubt much of the foundational rhetoric of Web 2.0 is cringeworthy in the harsh light of 2023. But it is important to remember that the core project of building a participatory web where data can be shared, improved, critiqued, remixed, and widely disseminated by anyone is still genuinely worthwhile.
The way the global economic landscape is shifting right now creates short-sighted incentives toward closure. In response, the open web ought to be enshrined as a matter of law. New regulations that secure rights around the portability of user data, protect the continued accessibility of crucial APIs to third parties, and clarify the long-ambiguous rules surrounding scraping would all help ensure that the promise of a free, dynamic, competitive internet can be preserved in the coming decade.
For too long, advocates for the open web have implicitly relied on naive beliefs that the network is inherently open, or that web companies would serve as unshakable defenders of their stated values. The opening innings of the post-ZIRP world show how broader economic conditions have actually played the larger role in architecting how the internet looks and feels to this point. Believers in a participatory internet need to reach for stronger tools to mitigate the effects of these deep economic shifts, ensuring that openness can continue to be embedded into the spaces that we inhabit online.