The new lock-in

Much ado is currently being made of Google’s recent announcement that it will soon join the ranks of contemporary “social” companies and grant itself the right to construct ads using your profile and endorsement. Mercifully, Big Data in this case is letting you opt out. But what if that’s not enough for you? What if this action served as your personal revelation that companies like Google and Facebook have access to a lot of your life, and you have finally decided you want out?

Well, it’s not so easy as that. As humanity has ridden the course of increasing cloud-ization of our lives, we have found ourselves with the intoxicating ability to be able to use our favorite technologies anywhere and, more recently, with our social circles readily accessible at any time. The unfortunate, and rarely-considered effect of all this is that to cut yourself off from a company whose practices you consider distasteful is to cut yourself off from other people who are not leaving, be they associates, friends, or even family. This is the new lock-in.

The Internet was not always like that. In fact, it was once a refuge from the software companies of yesteryear and their insistence on proprietary formats and protocols for data interchange, undocumented and used as a weapon against competition. Email was not new when the Internet became popular, but email that freely allowed exchange between sites running different vendors’ software was. Information exchange was not new when the Internet became popular, but a world where anyone could start up an information service and the rest of the world already had the software tools it needed to use it was a dramatic shift.

As the Internet became more popular, however, companies born of this heady time became the new conquerors. They played lip service to the notion of openness, making sure to maintain the parts of the status quo that still served them, but building massive empires atop the once-open network with their own brand of lock-in. Even their “open” API offerings are constructed to channel smaller groups into hitching their bandwagon to the behemoth rather than allowing anyone to break free. Breaking free, after all, hurts their bottom line.

Social features are the modern key driver of this lock-in, with no consideration given to actual openness at all, but rather very public embrace of the fact that your social graph, endorsements, private messaging, commentary, and even creative output are specifically for the network you create them on. You will never take it anywhere else without extraordinary measures (and even then, you may be blocked in the name of Security—though not as much yours as theirs.) You are locked in.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Developers working in the public interest could sweep these behemoths aside and build our own distributed replacements that keep massive organizations’ ownership dreams at bay. But, more than just code, we need massive momentum to do so, momentum that will doubtless be difficult to achieve when everyone is already locked in. Even if they have a strong enough grievance to prompt them to leave, there are others waiting with open arms and soothing promises of how easy it will be to join them instead. That momentum will likely prove to be very, very hard to get.

This article originally appeared on Medium.