I’m all for making Big Tech small again and fixing the internet so that it’s not just five giant websites filled with screenshots from the other four, not to mention doing something about market dominance, corporate bullying, rampant privacy invasions and so on.
But a persistent thread in the past year’s efforts to “fix the internet” has been to pass out badly constructed regulations that only the very biggest companies can afford to comply with, making it that much harder to enact policies that might shrink those companies down to size, and ensuring that small companies will be forced out of business by compliance costs long before they grow big enough to challenge the big guys.
In a column I just published in The Economist, I try to show how rules about harassment, sex trafficking, copyright infringement, terrorist recruiting and stopping kids from seeing porn have backfired, making the big platforms much stronger. Unless we do something about this — like clarifying patent, copyright and other rules to allow little companies to plug their tools into the big companies’ silos to help users escape them — the big platforms will only get bigger, stronger, and harder to topple.
As has been the case so often in the internet’s brief life, humanity has entered uncharted territory. People (sort of) know how to break up a railway or an oil company and America once barely managed to break up a phone company. No one is sure how to break up a tech monopolist. Depending on how this moment plays out, that option may be lost altogether.
But competition is too important to give up on.
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.
In a monopolised market, sellers get to bargain by fiat. But interoperability—from ad-blocking to switching app stores—is a means by which customers can assay real counteroffers.
Regulating Big Tech makes them stronger, so they need competition instead [Cory Doctorow/The Economist]