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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Tech advances may limit giants' power

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

As Facebook rolls towards what is projected to be a gigantic public stock offering, CNN's website published an essay by British-American author Andrew Keen ( http://bit.ly/L2qegG ) complaining about the growing power of three tech companies -- Facebook, Apple and Google. He compares the company to the fictitious Weyland Corporation from the upcoming "Alien" prequel "Prometheus."

And, of course, there are valid reasons to be concerned. As those three companies control more and more of our online life, and have access to more and more information about us, there's more and more potential for abuse.

Then again, I had misgivings a decade ago about what seemed like Microsoft's snowballing power, and its willingness to leverage its dominance in one part of our electronic life against another, even in ways that seemed unethical and that drew the attention of antitrust investigators. Microsoft seems like a lot less of a threat today -- it's still a successful and powerful company, but it's not the all-controlling behemoth it once was. In the smartphone market, it's the scrappy underdog.

Perhaps in another 10 years, or even 5, Facebook will have given way to something else, and won't seem like as much of a threat. If we've learned nothing else, it's that the world of technology can move quickly. That can be a threat, but it can also be a safeguard.

Meanwhile, Chris Matyszczyk of CNet ( http://cnet.co/J1cuBv ) projects that Facebook, which will now be answerable to a lot more stockholders, will soon be trying to get money out of its users. Now, there's a hoax which has circulated for years about Facebook planning to charge for its basic service. Mark Zuckerberg has consistently denied it, and believably so -- Facebook's goal is to be ubiquitous, and any attempt to charge for basic access would result in a huge defection of users, perhaps into the waiting arms of Google Plus. The signup page for Facebook contains the phrase "It's free and always will be."

But Facebook is already finding ways to charge people for specific premium features or services -- whether it's buying coins that you can use for mulligans in your online gaming, or a feature being test-marketed now in New Zealand that will, for a buck-and-a-half fee, guarantee that a particular status update will be placed more prominently in your followers' streams.

Of course, the maxim for any free Internet service is that if you're not paying for it, you're not the customer -- you're the product being sold. Most of us understand that tradeoff at some level. But as we move more and more of our lives online, the tradeoffs as far as privacy and control are something that bears our continued close attention, as individual consumers, as a nation and even as a planet.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is http://lakeneuron.com .

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John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.