Sergei Brin on the existential crisis of the net: walled gardens + snooping governments

Google co-founder Sergey Brin gave an interview to The Guardian in which he expressed his fear that the rise of walled gardens like Apple's iOS ecosystem and Facebook, combined with increased state action (even in so-called "liberal" western states) to spy on and control the Internet, that the Internet faces a real existential crisis. The interview is part of a larger series in the Guardian on the subject of the Internet's future, and the whole thing is worth your time.

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet, but warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.

"There's a lot to be lost," he said. "For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search it."

Brin's criticism of Facebook is likely to be controversial, with the social network approaching an estimated $100bn (£64bn) flotation. Google's upstart rival has seen explosive growth: it has signed up half of Americans with computer access and more than 800 million members worldwide.

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. "You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive," he said. "The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation."

He criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. "Facebook has been sucking down Gmail contacts for many years," he said.

Later in the interview, Brin talks about the measures that Google takes to avoid turning over its vast storehouse of personal information to snooping US authorities, but there's no evidence that anyone asked him the obvious question: "Why not collect less information, and delete it more often?"

Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google's Sergey Brin


  1. Incredible how quickly Google burned off the huge good will it had from just about all quarters until not that long ago, when they started chasing facebook. Look at the comments on that guardian article–a vast majority of them contain some variant on “Google’s just as bad, he’s just saying that to hurt Google’s business rivals”. Boingers probably agree with Brin to an extent about the danger of walled gardens swallowing the world, but to the general public Google’s image has been hurt by adopting everyone else’s crappy practices.

  2. Hyperbolic nonsense. Is keeping a Word doc or text file on your home computer a threat to freedom? Is the fact that I can’t search my Google Docs from or Yahoo! a threat to freedom? This is nothing more than misdirection via a dig at the competition that plays well since Facebook is a horrible company, and  “everyone knows” that iPads are only for consuming.

  3. Well, if you translate it from Google to English it comes out like “Data that’s not accessible to web-crawlers is a threat to our business model.” 

    1.  Exactly. Because how can we give you the best Internet experience if we don’t know every single bit of data stored in you apps. We already know every single thing you do on the Internet anyways.

  4. Regardless of what you think of Google, would it be very wrong of some netizen with a large twitter following to post a message along the lines of Facebook 100 bn flotation imminent – not long now before we can all abandon it. Pass it on. WOM only!?

  5. “Why not collect less information, and delete it more often?”

    This is akin to asking Sergei “Why don’t you collect less money and delete an opportunity to make more?”

    1. So what?  The point is still valid.  Data on Facebook is Facebook’s, forever.  One company owns all that history.  And it’s real history; researchers will want to look at it in 20, 50, 100 years.

      Page and Brin may be self interested,  but they do truly care about human knowledge, and closed gardens are legitimate threats.

      The worst thread is that closed gardens offer a single point of contact for government censorship.   That alone should concern you more than Brin’s conflict of interest.

  6. How can he criticize Facebook while he’s refocusing the entire company on Google Plus? If they manage to convince people to create in their little garden, how open will they be to the next Google-like startup that comes along?

  7. I tend to believe that Sergei Brin is a principled guy – he pushed pretty hard to get Google to change their policies on China, and it’s clear that he really feels this stuff about state control of information.

    But he also built an empire that’s based on control of information, and when you’re collecting so much nectar in big barrels, stirring it up and heating it to attract bees, it’s no surprise that some flies show up to the party along with it. His company is really no better than Facebook in this regard – Google’s business model has always been based on commodifying their customer’s personal information (their search habits and interests rather than their social network graph) for sale to third parties.

    Ultimately I think having a problem with the private control and commodification of information is isomorphic with having a problem with capitalism. Which I do, but I get that not everyone is on the same page as me.

    1. Uh, what?  Google rolled over for China big time was the actual end result.  They are trying to be Facebook + but linking and collecting more personal information without your knowledge, and the only reason he talks about Apple and Facebook is because they don’t allow him to do more of this.

  8. Great comments you guys. I was flabbergasted when I saw this on Slashdot this morning. What an amazing case of the pot calling the kettles black. There’s nothing “open” about many of Google’s technologies, especially the cloud technologies, which IMHO are as much of a threat to personal security and privacy as anything else out there. The fact that Brin has attacked two of Google’s biggest competitors in this rant is no coincidence. Horrendously hypocritical hogwash. 

    1. Who CARES if he is hypocritical?   He is still right!  

      I swear, people on this thread are more concerned with Brin’s altruism than with the actual issue he raises.  Closed gardens are not just a threat to Google indexing; they are threats to free access to information.  

      As David Brin has pointed out, loss of privacy is not a big issue if it is shared evenly.  If data is concentrated in the hands of the powerful, then it is a huge threat to democracy and freedom.

      My point is that the threats that Sergey points out are far greater than the threat to you if he is or is not being hypocritical.   If a restaurant owner stood up against the death penalty, would you brush it off by saying that he was only trying to maintain his customer base?

      1.  It sounds like numerous people are worried about “open information” and “human knowledge” (whatever those may be) falling into the hands of a few powerful corporations. 

        Well, since the internet is commercialized, just like the signposts in your town, there’s no getting away from information being in the hands of the powerful.  It seems like the key is to spread it out so the info is not just in the hands of a few companies, but dozens and hundreds of them.

    2. So you know, that doesn’t mean I don’t think you should call Google out on areas where they are just as bad.  I just don’t think you should dismiss the whole point as “hogwash”.

    3. Why does it matter if the criticism is hypocritical? Very simple:

      Brin is making a consumer advocacy argument. He’s giving an interview to a general media organization in the hopes of laying down grassroot support for Google; making consumers think of Google as “Open” and Facebook and Apple as “Closed”. Google is your friend; Apple and Facebook don’t care about you. But it’s a distorted view, since Google is guilty of some of the same sins. So Brin’s interview is essentially advertising: he’s attacking his company’s competitors and pumping his company.

      His criticism is, itself, not immune to criticism. 

  9. I’ve always assumed that one of Google’s long term directives is merely the accumulation of training sets for applied soft AI via evolutionary algorithm harvesting. In that case, data is data, and it would be self-defeating to groom or filter it, so efforts to resist it shouldn’t be surprising, nor should objections to forking out into what would be practical darknets.

    A bit saved is a bit earned, as it were.

    In for a bit, in for a byte.

    I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be pushed back against, but it might help to think about what may be longer term goals as we struggle through today’s tug of war over information flows. It might help align interests in the other side of the fight – forcing a restoration of transparency in government and business activities.

  10. Um, dude? This began in about 1996 when the plethora of Web forums began to replace Usenet, and it became 10 times more difficult to find the answer to a question amidst the available data. If it weren’t for the sheer size of the web, finding amateur-sourced information online would be impossible because any individual piece of data would be hidden in one of five dozen or more different forums.

  11. A lot of people directed the walled garden accusation at America Online. They were right then too but the concern was misplaced, these kinds of gardens don’t last forever.

    1. Facebook has a network effect that AOL didn’t have.  The value of a social network is that everyone is on it.  AOL had very little that was actually sticky.

      Facebook may end up more like eBay, which is successful because it is the default, not because it’s the best.

  12. Facebook is bad. Not right now, but it will be (so it is). People already post stupidy things that get them arrested — they simply take the open Web mind to a very closed and monitored garden — and this happens right now, where we still have the open web fresh in our minds and know what it means “to log into something”. 

    Fast forward and your ISP will use FB to log you in first, then you will navigate the web from inside FB. Future generations will never fully realize what the web was. FB is the solution that governments and corporations needed (wanted). A pseudo  open forum. 

    I wouldn’t be surprised if FB had all the support from the US government (conspiracy theories aside) and all the “social media helped fuel the Arab Spring” was just PR to help concquer the restless.

  13. warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.

    Allow me to welcome Brin to my Blogger site, which pushes me to a .ca URL unless I go out of my way to fuck with their stupid system.

    “There’s a lot to be lost,” he said. “For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.”

    Allow me to welcome Brin to my Google-owned Blogger site, which, if you do a site search of the .ca version of it, reveals no content at all.

  14. The iPad and Apple’s App Store is a good example of one company’s attempt to turn the internet into a means of maximizing profit; forget information.  The iPad is basically built around a credit card transaction and the internet.  Content, design and the user are secondary at best.

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