Web security CEO warns about control of internet falling into few hands

Matthew Prince
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The internet was designed to be a massive, decentralized system that nobody controlled, but it is increasingly controlled by a select few tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, and they are continuing to consolidate power, said the CEO of a cybersecurity company.

"More and more of the internet is sitting behind fewer and fewer players, and there are benefits of that, but there are also real risks," said Matthew Prince, chief executive officer of web security company CloudFlare, in an interview with CNBC. His comments came at CloudFlare's Internet Summit — a conference featuring tech executives and government security experts — on Tuesday in San Francisco.

Facebook has faced a lot of criticism for perceived abuse of its editorial sway among the 1.7 billion monthly active users who visit the site to consume news alongside family photos and ads. For example, a Norwegian newspaper editor recently slammed Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook's removal of a post featuring an iconic image known as the Napalm Girl that included a naked girl running from napalm bombs.

"If everything sits behind Facebook and you can't publish pictures like that, is the world a better place? Probably not," said Prince.

"Before you know it, you could wake up and find more of the internet sits behind a small number of gate-keepers," said Prince. Putting that sort of power in the hands of a small number of people and companies "might not be the best thing," he said.

Still, the wave of consolidation among the major internet companies is likely to continue, at least for now, he said.

The big internet platform companies have amassed so much power that they benefit from huge economies of scale, enabling them to do things more inexpensively because they do them for a lot of people. They also benefit from network effects — the data that they have makes their services more effective, in turn drawing more users onto their platforms.

And doing things like extending the internet to remote corners of the globe — something Facebook and Alphabet's Google are both working on — is expensive. Only a few companies can afford to invest in the technology and further extend their reach to parts of the world as they come online. It makes more sense, in many cases, for developers to build products on top of these existing platforms, said Prince.

The advantages of being a company like Google are massive, and entrepreneurs are realizing that the most effective way to build a product and a business is to do so behind those platforms, he said.

"You have just got a huge amount of the internet being concentrated by a very small number of players, and I think that's going to be the interesting story of the years ahead, because that isn't what the internet has been traditionally," said Prince.