There Are Lots Of Ways To Punish Big Tech Companies, But Only A Few Will Actually Help Improve The Internet
from the this-is-important dept
There are many reasonable complaints making the rounds these days about the big internet companies, and many questions about what should be done. Unfortunately, too much of the thinking around this can be summarized as “these companies are bad, we should punish them, any punishment therefore is good.” This is dangerous thinking. I tend to agree with Benedict Evans who noted that there’s a similarity between calls to break up big tech companies and Brexit in the UK:
?Break up Google/Amazon/Facebook!? reminds me a lot of Brexit. It sounds really good, until you ask ?well, into what??, or ?and what specific problem does this solve??
— Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) June 9, 2019
I’ve pointed out a few times now that most calls to break up or regulate these companies fail to explain how these plansactually solve the problems people highlight. Companies are callous about our privacy? Will regulating them or breaking them up actually stop that? The GDPR has proven otherwise already. The companies algorithms recommend bad things? How will breaking them up stop that?
Too much of the thinking seems to just be focused on “company bad, must punish” and don’t get much beyond that.
And that’s a pretty big problem, because many of the ideas being passed around could ultimately end up harming the wider internet much more than they end up damaging the few big companies anyway. We’ve already seen that with the GDPR, which has served to further entrench the giants. The same will almost certainly be true when the EU Copyright Directive goes into effect, since the entire plan is designed to entrench the giants so that the big entertainment companies can negotiate new licensing deals with them.
In a new piece for the Economist, Cory Doctorow warns that many of these attempts to “harm” the big internet companies through regulation will actually do much more harm to the wider internet, while making the biggest companies stronger.
The past 12 months have seen a blizzard of new internet regulations that, ironically, have done more to enshrine Big Tech?s dominance than the decades of lax antitrust enforcement that preceded them. This will have grave consequences for privacy, free expression and safety.
He talks about the GDPR, FOSTA, the EU Copyright Directive and various “terrorist” and “online harms” regulatory proposals — all of which end up making the big internet companies more powerful in the name of “regulating/punishing” them. It’s worth reading Cory’s take on all those laws, but he summarizes the key point here:
Creating state-like duties for the big tech platforms imposes short-term pain on their shareholders in exchange for long-term gain. Shaving a few hundred million dollars off a company’s quarterly earnings to pay for compliance is a bargain in exchange for a world in which they need not fear a rival growing large enough to compete with them. Google can stop looking over its shoulder for the next company that will do to it what it did to Yahoo, and Facebook can stop watching for someone ready to cast it in the role of MySpace, in the next social media upheaval.
These duties can only be performed by the biggest companies, which all-but forecloses on the possibility of breaking up Big Tech. Once it has been knighted to serve as an arm of the state, Big Tech cannot be cut down to size if it is to perform those duties.
Cory is much more engaged in the idea of breaking up the big tech companies than I am (we recently debated the topic on the Techdirt podcast), but his point here is valid. So much of the “punish big tech” movement is at odds with other parts of the “punish big tech” movement. That’s because there is no coherent strategy here — it’s just “punish big tech.”
Cory’s article suggests that any move towards antitrust should include mandating interoperability in an effort to build up competition:
One exciting possibility is to create an absolute legal defence for companies that make “interoperable” products that plug into the dominant companies’ offerings, from third-party printer ink to unauthorised Facebook readers that slurp up all the messages waiting for you there and filter them to your specifications, not Mark Zuckerberg’s. This interoperability defence would have to shield digital toolsmiths from all manner of claims: tortious interference, bypassing copyright locks, patent infringement and, of course, violating terms of service.
Interoperability is a competitive lever that is crying to be used, hard. After all, the problem with YouTube isn’t that it makes a lot of interesting videos available?it is that it uses search and suggestion filters that lead viewers into hateful, extreme bubbles. The problem with Facebook isn’t that they have made a place where all your friends can be found?it is that it tries to “maximise engagement” by poisoning your interactions with inflammatory or hoax material.
This actually reminds me of another similar piece, written last month by Josh Constine at TechCrunch, arguing that the FTC should force Facebook to mandate “friend portability” for Facebook:
I don?t expect the FTC to launch its own ?Fedbook? social network. But what it can do is pave an escape route from Facebook so worthy alternatives become viable options. That?s why the FTC must require Facebook to offer truly interoperable data portability for the social graph.
In other words, the government should pass regulations forcing Facebook to let you export your friend list to other social networks in a privacy-safe way. This would allow you to connect with or follow those people elsewhere so you could leave Facebook without losing touch with your friends. The increased threat of people ditching Facebook for competitors would create a much stronger incentive to protect users and society.
Both Cory and Josh are making an important point: part of the reason why these platforms have become so big and so powerful is because there is real friction in leaving — not because it’s hard to just start using another platform, but because if all the other users are still on that other platform, it’s meaningless if just you switch. Of course, history shows us that over time, many people will migrate over to new platforms. And you know this if you’ve been on the internet for the past two decades. Remember the 2000s when you used AIM to communicate with your friends while chatting with folks on MySpace? Over time, folks moved.
But making platforms more open — forcing “interoperability” — is certainly one way forward. I’d actually argue it does not go far enough. I’ve argued an even better solution is not just about forced interoperability, but moving to a world of protocols instead of platforms. In such a world, interoperability would be standard, but would also be just one piece of the puzzle for making the world more dynamic and competitive. If we relied on more open platforms, then third parties could build all sorts of new services, from better front ends, to better features and tools, and users could choose which implementation(s) they wanted to use, making switching from any particular service provider much easier — especially if that provider did anything to hurt user trust. Interoperability would be one step in that direction, but only one step.
It’s quite reasonable that people are concerned about big tech these days, but if we’re going to have a reasonable solution that doesn’t create wider negative consequences for the internet, we should be thinking much more carefully about the various proposals on the table. A simple “punish big tech because big tech is bad” may get people riled up, but the chances for negative consequences are too great to ignore.