For the past six years or so, this image that (as best I can tell) was created by Reddit user quink has been making the rounds as the "nightmare scenario" if net neutrality dies. It's the bundle: your favorite websites tiered up into different packages, forcing you to pay different rates just to access different sites. A significant thread through the net neutrality debate was making sure ISPs (read: cable companies) didn't turn the free and open internet into the thing those ISPs actually want, cable packages.
We had to stop the bundle.
We have, thus far, been mostly successful in stopping it. We've been less successful in stopping the inverse-yet-also-bad idea of zero-rating, thanks to companies like T-Mobile and Facebook offering access to certain internet sites and services for free. That battle is more complicated, because saving people money is as well-liked as making them pay extra or blocking access is well-hated.
In these battles, people who care about keeping the internet from turning into cable have been assisted by companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and even Facebook. These companies built their businesses on the back of the internet and helped craft the tools we use to freely surf (remember web surfing?) across the internet. Because they stood as a corporate bulwark against those dirty ISPs, we could trust that no matter where we went and no matter what kind of computer we were using, we'd get to see what we wanted to see.
The very companies that defended net neutrality are creating the new bundle
Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook have defended net neutrality and fought the bundle. But, deep inside the software that powers their empires, they're each creating a different kind of bundle. We might be winning (or at least aren't losing) the fight against the Comcasts and Time Warners of the world, but these tech giants could be quietly undercutting us as we blithely use their gadgets and software to do our internet things.
The bundle is already here, it came from places we haven't been watching closely enough, and it has many names. There's more than enough doomsaying about the issues related to Instant Articles, Internet.org, and Binge On. Instead, I'd like to take a minute to doomsay what could become the other opponents to the kind of free, transparent, and open internet we all want: Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Facebook M, and Google Now.
These intelligent assistants are great. I use them every day and expect I will continue to use them for, well, ever. But there's a problem that's built into them: they only seem to work with certain parts of the web and — here's the real rub — certain apps.
In 2015, we watched the app world start to act a lot more like the web world. These intelligent assistants have begun to do for apps what Google itself originally did for the web: index them and make them searchable. You can get Yelp results in Siri, OpenTable in Google, TuneIn radio from Alexa. But you can't get everything, fairly and transparently ranked, the way that Google changed search on the web.
Which apps do these bots talk to?
In fact, just getting a raw list of every app and service that these bots are able to index and communicate with is surprisingly difficult. Google has a list of partners that Now can interact with and a very non-exhaustive list of apps it has indexed. Apple’s Siri communicates with different apps in different regions, including (most prominently) Wikipedia, Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango, Shazam, OpenTable, The Weather Channel, Yahoo!, Bing, and Wolfram Alpha — but there’s no public, definitive list. Microsoft has a big list of apps here. And all of the above companies are actively reaching out to developers and publishing the technical documentation necessary to add more apps to their bots.
That’s all great, but did you know that there’s no universal way for app developers to make their apps’ content readable to every company? Instead, each app maker has to create an index that Google can read, an index that Apple can read, another one for Microsoft, and so on. I’ve been told by people at multiple companies that we’re getting closer to a universal standard that will make creating these indexes less of a burden on developers, but we’re not there yet.
Back in 2013 when Google killed off its RSS reader, I argued that RSS mattered because it was a way for different parts of the internet to talk to each other, regardless of what app they used. In 2015, we have no such standard. How an app or a service makes its way onto one of these bots isn’t clear at all. Is it simply using an open API? Do app makers need to cut deals with giant corporations to put their apps inside Siri and Google Now? If you’d like to create your own competing intelligent assistant, will you also have to cut your own deals? If so, that’s a big moat for an independent developer to cross. That’s a hamper on innovation.
That looks a lot like a bundle.
There are a hundred problems to solve, none of them easy
Even if you solve those problems, there’s still yet another: which app or service will these bots return when you ask for something? Web searches like Google and Bing claim to be based on impartial algorithms, not backroom deals. But the way that OpenTable and Yelp and Hotel listings appear in Siri and Google Now is much more opaque.
With Google’s Pagerank, there’s at least a nominal sense that users are picking the winners and losers. I couldn’t tell you what makes app results appear inside these assistants. So far, nobody’s saying publicly how their apps figure out what to show you. I’d like to trust that none of these companies are picking favorites based on backroom deals (the kind of paid placement that led people to distrust the AltaVista search engine 15 years ago), but I’d much rather just know how Siri and Alexa and Cortana make those choices.
This isn’t a net neutrality issue, per se, but it does feel related. The original concept of net neutrality was underwritten by the pre-existence of open web standards. The internet was largely seen as an egalitarian, open space because there was generally well-distributed means to accessing competing spaces provided you had an internet connection and a web browser. Apps and bots have upended that level field to a significant degree, and our understanding of what a free and open internet even is hasn’t caught up.
Here’s the White House’s stance on net neutrality, something that has become conventional wisdom on the internet: "We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas." When we use bots instead of web browsers to access the internet, those bots will get to pick the winners and losers. That may be unavoidable, but at the very least I’d like to know how the bot is deciding.
It's fair (and true!) to argue that it's still early days for intelligent assistants, and to trust that a standard like RSS (and its progenitors and descendants) will emerge that will make apps more fully and fairly integrated with these bots. And nobody wants their intelligent assistant to act like a bare Google search of links — we definitely want the bots to just tell us what we want to know in an interface that’s radically simpler than a web browser. These are not an easy problems to solve.
How much can you trust your intelligent assistant?
But as Casey Newton so eloquently explained, there's a very real chance that these bots are going to become our primary interface to the internet, the medium through which we get our information and our sweet, sweet content. So I think we should demand that the companies that helped us fight the ISP bundle don't end up becoming purveyors of bundles themselves. We should hold them to the standard of openness that made the web so vibrant in the first place.
I don't know exactly what that should look like, but my guess it that it will end up being pretty boring. Standards bodies will create file formats and APIs so that any app maker or web developer can ensure their stuff is visible to these bots. Corporations will figure out ways to make their new bots more extensible and more transparent. (Most of the big five companies I’m talking about here are already working on the former. The latter, well, let’s just say it’s "early days"). UI designers will evolve towards interfaces that balance the One Thing we actually want against the Many Things we expect. If we’re lucky, it’s going to look like a mix of all of that.
I do know what it shouldn't look like: asking Alexa what movie to watch and having her suggest The Hunger Games because Amazon cut a deal with Bing who cut a deal with IMDb (which is technically Amazon anyway) who cut a deal with Lionsgate. If I wanted opaque backroom deals to determine what content is available to me, I've already got TV and the radio. The internet is supposed to be different. The internet ought to stay unbundled.