Dangers of Closed Platforms

I advocate for open decentralized platforms like Mastodon, Matrix, and PeerTube over closed centralized platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While popular open platforms don’t have the reach and user base of popular closed platforms, they also lack many of the dangers.

Two recent stories illustrate some of the bigger dangers of closed platforms. The first was Meta (the new name Facebook chose in its attempt to improve its public image) announcing that it will demand a near 50 percent cut of all digital goods sold on its platform:

Facebook-parent Meta is planning to take a cut of up to 47.5% on the sale of digital assets on its virtual reality platform Horizon Worlds, which is an an integral part of the company’s plan for creating a so-called “metaverse.”

Before Apple popularized completely locked down platforms, software developers were able to sell their wares without cutting in platform owners. For example, if you sold software that ran on Windows, you didn’t have to hand over a percentage of your earnings to Microsoft. This was because Windows, although a closed source platform, didn’t restrict users’ ability to install whatever software they wanted from whichever source they chose. Then Apple announced the App Store. As part of that announcement Apple noted that the App Store would be the only way (at least without jailbreaking) to install additional software on iOS devices and that Apple would claim a 30 percent cut of all software sold on the App Store.

Google announced a very similar deal for Android Devices, but with a few important caveats. The first caveat was that side loading, the act of installing software outside of the Google Play Store, would be allowed (unless a device manufacturer disallowed it). The second caveat was that third-party stores like F-Droid would be supported. The third caveat was that since Android is an open source project, even if Google did away with the first two caveats, developers were free to fork Android and release versions that restored the functionality.

The iOS model favors the platform owner over both third-party software developers and users. The Android model at least cuts third-party software developers and users a bit of slack by giving them alternatives to the officially support platform owner app store (although Google makes an effort to ensure its Play Store is favored over side loading and third-party stores). Meta has chosen the Apple model, which means anybody developing software for Horizon Worlds will be required to hand nearly half of their earnings to Meta. This hostility to third-party developers and users is compounded by the fact that Meta could at any point change the rules and demand an even larger cut.

The second story illustrating the dangers of closed centralized platforms is Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter:

Elon Musk on Wednesday offered to personally acquire Twitter in an all-cash deal valued at $43 billion. Musk laid out the terms of the proposal in a letter to Twitter Chairman Bret Taylor that was reproduced in an SEC filing.

This announcement has upset a lot of Twitter users (especially those who oppose the concept of free speech since Musk publicly support the concept). Were Twitter an open decentralized platform, Musk’s announcement would have less relevance. For example, if Twitter were a federated social media service like Mastodon, users on Twitter could simply migrate to another instance. Federation would allow them to continue interacting with Twitter’s users (unless Twitter block federation, of course), but from an instance not owned and controlled by Musk. But Twitter isn’t open or decentralized. Whoever owns Twitter gets to make the rules and users have no choice but to accept those rules (or migrate to a completely different platform and deal with the Herculean challenge of convincing their friends and followers to migrate with them).

I often point out that if you don’t own a service, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. As an end user you have no power on closed platforms like iOS and Twitter. With open platforms you always have the option to self-host or to find an instance run in a manner you find agreeable.

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