Guest Columns
5 mins read

No more free gardens – the free web as we know it is under attack

OPINION

Imagine a beautiful spring Sunday in New York City. Very few things are more delightful than being able to stroll in Central Park and have a picnic on the sprawling grass next to Turtle Pond. Now, let’s imagine the same scenario, except you can’t walk into the park without having to pay for a membership card. Or at least registering at the gate, providing your ID, having your face scanned, and providing your contact information so the park can engage with you over text or email from now on.

Sounds crazy? Well, this is exactly where we’re heading with the open web as we know it. The open web is under attack.

What is “The Open Web”?

Before we move forward, it’s important to understand what the “open web” is, and how it differs from the internet’s walled (or closed) gardens.

A walled garden is a closed ecosystem in which all the operations are controlled by the ecosystem operator. For example, in the past, mobile carriers were able to restrict which phones were able to run on their network. This way, the carriers ensured that any companies who wanted direct access to their users had to work through their levels of the technology stack. Today, Google and Facebook are the modern-day walled gardens. They force marketers who want to reach their users to work with their whole stack, including the dashboard, user data, targeting options, and selected users of the platform. In our Central Park metaphor, you could think of a walled garden as a private golf club.

As opposed to walled gardens, the open web is the rest of the internet. The parts that exist outside of the platforms. Each publisher can decide which technologies and platforms to partner with and how to monetize their own content or site. It’s Central Park, where anyone can walk in, enjoy full anonymity, and engage with fellow park-goers and vendors if they wish.

The open web isn’t necessarily “free of charge.” Some services in the park (like buying a hot dog) cost money. Some content may have a cost for access. But there’s a sense of “freedom”. It’s not restricted or controlled by one conglomerate or government. The open web allows players to make their own choices on where to go, what to access and what to read or view.

So What’s the Concern?

The open and free web as we know it is facing an existential risk. Publishers are losing ground; their print revenues are in decline because of the shift of consumption to online content, and their revenues from digital advertising are not covering the difference. This year alone, we’ve witnessed the demise of one of America’s former newspaper empires, McClatchy Co.

The vast majority of advertisers’ spend in digital is going to the walled gardens platforms like Google and Facebook, which can provide advertisers with greater reach and precise targeting. In 2019, the duopoly accounted for just under 60% of digital ad spending in the US. While Facebook and Google may be under pressure and scrutiny from the government and the public eye, advertisers don’t seem to mind. In fact, most of their ad budget is going there. Which is why it brings me to this point: the open web isn’t dead, but it most certainly is under existential threat, and publishers are getting hit the worst.

And that sliver of small share that is left for publishers is yet again under attack. On one side, we have the regulators vowing to protect consumers’ privacy online, and on the other, the owners of the browsers (the largest, Chrome, happens to be owned by the same walled garden) who restrict the ability of publishers to provide advertisers with a similar level of targeting.

With the introduction of GDPR and CCPA, regulators have one thing in mind — to ensure consumer data and privacy is not comprised. This again limits how publishers, and advertisers, are connecting with users. The huge irony is that these privacy-focused regulations actually benefit most companies that have a direct relationship (via registration/login) with users. These are the same walled gardens that already operate a de-facto Duopoly.

The second: the owners of internet browsers, like Google (see the irony again?), are making it impossible for publishers to make any sustainable revenue with an ad-supported business model. Just recently, Google announced new changes to how cookies will be allowed/used on Chrome.

The Death of the Open Web

Without the ability to provide advertisers a similar level of buying efficiency, publishers will be left with no option but to build some version of a wall of their own, demanding users to register (for free, to access ad-supported content) or outright become a paying subscriber.

But who does this benefit? Surely not the users. They’ll have to decide between paying to access content or lose anonymity by registering and being targeted with ads online and via email.

And surely not for publishers, whose journalistic integrity will be called into question as the only remaining “free content” that will be published in such a world will probably be subpar and populist, at most. In our analogy, the only free access gardens remaining will be in front of some political pact headquarters.

Can We Still Save it?

Why make sure most content users are currently enjoying for free remains open and free? Because in a future with only two options, no one wins. Consumers have proven they don’t want to subscribe to multiple sources of content, but are also unhappy with being targeted. They want to be able to access content without having to register and identify themselves to every site they go to.

In this scenario, the only publishers who continue to serve “free content” will not live up to the minimal standards of journalistic integrity as we know and trust today and will be heavily skewed by fake news, disinformation and deep fake videos. Ironically, the only sources of free “high standard” content will be developed by brands who actually care deeply about their brand equity and will, therefore, take great measures to make sure everything they publish meets the highest standards.

Instead, what needs to be done is for publishers to have the ability to take back their voice. We need a sustainable free internet where the user has the choice, but the publisher can still make money to be able to support high-quality editorial stuff. Examples of actions can be an incentive, like tax or credit, for advertisers to spend on publishers. Or it could include a government-led profile sharing mechanism that all ad-tech industry participants must use to protect the identity of users, while enabling marketer’s ROI on the other. This allows for an even playing field between smaller players and the duopoly. The power needs to be in the hands of the user and of the publishers. Without it, I’m deeply concerned about the future of quality journalism, which is the watchdog of modern democracy as we know it.

I prefer to keep Central Park free to walk into for me and my kids. Don’t you?

Gilad de Vries, SVP Strategy at Outbrain

About: Outbrain is the world’s leading discovery and native advertising feed for the open web. A third of the world’s Internet-connected population explore and discover information through its feed technology, which is trusted by brands and integrated into thousands of media companies’ tech stacks to manage and monetize their publishing operations. Outbrain operates in 55 countries and is headquartered in New York City with offices in 18 cities worldwide. Learn more at www.outbrain.com or follow on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Photo by Jermaine Ee on Unsplash

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