Antitrust will just make tech richer
Forget antitrust. Regulate. Make tech work for us. Antitrust won’t work. Regulation will. Forcing tech monopolies to breakup won’t help consumers, encourage innovation or do anything other than enrich the shareholders, founders and investors who will get stock splits and free entry passes to more locked in profits in artificially diverse tech smaller-ish-monopolies.
Breaking up tech is a quick way to appear strong to the public while accomplishing little and making things worse for the average person. Instead, tech companies need to be regulated, forced to provide mobility and universal access to services like messaging, identity, authoring, ownership and storage. The burden and cost of building and maintaining this infrastructure paid for by tech.
We want tech companies to be big
Tech profits comes from the silos they have consolidated and maintain. Consumers benefit from those silos. We won’t get better value from hunting for our friends across 20 social media platforms or searching across multiple tools. Most of these data-based tech solutions increase in value proportionate to the data they collect.
Instead of trying to break up large tech companies that benefit us, we need to start forcing them to spend a higher percentage of their profits on us. By default, tech must provide universal access, transferability and portability of our digital data, messages, identities, content. These kinds of services will make the companies less profitable (but still monopoly profits). This creation of open services will enable entire ecosystems of innovation like what we experienced during the creation and scale of the Internet.
There is no technological or security-based excuse for not allowing these features for consumers. And new data privacy regulations are forcing this process. This will be an end result in the decades ahead. It’s simply a question of whether governments/politicians will lead the way or follow along. No tech company can be allowed to lockout or lockin anyone.
Let’s talk about how we can “use” big tech
Too often we fall into a standard argument about how to breakup or control big tech, yet instead, we should accept the value that these big companies provide us and think more about how we use them. Presently, they get a free-ride on society. Avoiding most regulation and claiming the power to self-regulate in almost all situations.
Many tech niches are monopolies for good reason. Society as a whole and users individually benefit from those services. With those monopoly profits comes a burden of societal service. And traditional antitrust action will continue to fail on this basis. Our tech monopolies benefit us greatly today and hold us back from our full potential in the future at the same time. Its time we regulated tech and forced a conversation about how that profit can be used to better improve the future of humanity, equitably.
The present attacks on tech monopolies have tried to force breakups as a solution. That approach will fail as its not possible to prove that consumers have been directly harmed due to free, beneficial services. Which is also why those same firms should be heavily regulated and forced to provide comprehensive access.
Here are some examples of immediate, actionable policies that governments could draft and enforce on tech which would immediately improve the ecosystem of digital services and competitiveness of the space. Tech companies themselves can easily start this process, but without regulatory force, it’s impossible for them to take the action. Doing so in a regulatory vacuum would be bad business judgement — exposing yourself to erosion of your core user-base and profitable lockins. Even if doing so will create more long-term value for you and your users.
Universal Message Portability
Any company that provides a messaging service (SMS/Email/IM/etc) must provide universal access. Allowing any other messaging service to access the message history of that user — synchronously and asynchronously. Standard security/delete/etc required.
What this means? no more lockin to WhatsApp, iMessage, etc. You can move from/to whatever messaging service/app you want and access all of your messages from any service, any time. Sending a message on any service would be delivered wherever that user wants it to be.
How hard is it? Not that hard. Many messaging services companies already provide extensive APIs. You can download all of your messages from google. You can access your outlook account via API. The difference is there is no central governing requirement to provide all these services, for free, to everyone, for any purpose, and according to an agreed standard.
Why it matters? Dominate messaging services like WhatsApp effectively lockin users because so many people use the service, it is practically impossible to use anything else. Yet, that doesn’t make sense. WhatsApp is just a front-end for exchanging bits of text with people you know. Why can’t you choose what kind of interface you want to receive and send those bits of text? Allowing that will create massive opportunity spaces for new apps and services that try to provide an ever better user experience to people with your kinds of needs. WhatsApp won’t care about a few million users preferences when their userbase is billions.
Universal Data Portability
Any company that provides any form of data creation and storage service must provide universal access to that data. This is unique to messaging services which are highly transactional (in and out). Data creation and storage is static and broad. It would be impossible to define universal file formats for every application. However, it is possible to require that no company can lockin users to their file format and that no user can be lockedin to storing their files in a single place.
What this means? It won’t matter whether you have pictures in Google Photos, OneDrive or Amazon AWS. All services must provide comprehensive universal access to the data.
How hard is it? We are almost… there… Almost every cloud storage provide offers some form of this already. And it is somewhat easy to run syncs across your storage spaces in the wild. It’s not seamless and it lacks consistent standards, but it works when you need it to. Regulating it and enforcing consistent standards seems an overdue step to help streamline and rationalize the services already available.
Why it matters? The amount of data we individually create is immense and increases every day. Ensuring that this data is universally accessible gives us a chance to innovate ways to seamlessly process/manage/learn/explore this data that we create and store. Ignoring the problem and allowing patchwork solutions, will be exclusive. Those with access (knowledge, power and money) will benefit from their data. Those without access will fall farther behind. Society looses out because people who could be great contributors are excluded for no reason other than they lacked sufficient access to be able to contribute.
Universal Identity Management
Any company that provides any form of login to their platform/app/service, must provide a universal identity log. This allows for anyone, in any country to know where their details have been used for an account creation. At some point in the future, this could allow universal identity management via a single sign-on service. However, that seems highly unlikely given that countries are increasingly moving and protecting citizen data domestically.
What this means? Any service that you login to must provide a log/notice to a common place/log/feed that can be easily connected to a country national portal or a 3rd party identity management service. You won’t need to worry about keeping track of what accounts you have where. Every place your identity is used will be listed.
How hard is it? Painfully easy. Most social networks already provide this in a way. Companies can ping their APIs to check if a user exists on the network. With a standard in place, it’s a few lines of code to send a ‘registered user’ event to a common log. The universal identity management platform is equally possible with a group like the United Nations operating it as an open source lattice that countries connect to and own their own data within. Much like how the passport system works today.
Why it matters? We can’t keep track of all the services we have signed up for and when our identities are stolen, we don’t know how to track where our profile is being used. There are many paid services that help you track your identity across the internet, yet the focus is mainly on fraud prevention. This information should be a universal right not something that we need to setup and pay for.
Universal Ownership Transferability
Any company that provides any digital product/asset must provide a way to transfer that asset/product to anyone else that the owner wishes to effect the transfer to without fees or additional restrictions.
What this means? If you purchased a movie on Google Play Movies, you can’t give it to a friend. You can’t setup a new account and transfer it to that account. You can’t delete it. It is “yours” for as long as Google allows you to own it and linked to a single email address forever. Amazon Kindle books are the same. This would force all these companies to ensure that whenever you wanted to, you could move your digital assets wherever you want to.
How hard is it? From a technology standpoint it’s really easy. The technologies and formats already exist. Digital Rights Management tech is mature and stable. From a local-regulations standpoint it’s more complex but not hard. The companies would need to consider restrictions related to transferring assets between countries and the security/etc… This isn’t anything more complicated than tech companies already do with their apps and services in different countries.
Why it matters? We spend a lot of money on digital products/assets and every year we spend more. eBooks and digital movies give us an “impression” of ownership at an equivalent cost; yet provide none of the realities of ownership. Even when we purchase a digital product we are really just renting it from the company that produced it. If that company decides to change their business model, goes out of business, those products we ‘own’ were never ours. This is bad for the overall market place. If I’m confident of my ownership rights, I’m more likely to buy something. If I don’t think I own it, I’m more likely to pay less and use it only when I need it.
Universal Content Management
Any company that provides content creation services (writing, graphics, video, etc) must provide universal access to that content at the same quality as produced on the service. If the service wants to retain some rights to your content, they must purchase those rights directly.
What this means? The user can take their content with them wherever they go and access it, manage it (edit/delete) from anywhere/any other service. Or get paid for it.
How hard is it? This is pretty hard for existing social media and content production companies as they have worked hard to isolate their platforms and encourage captive lockin. You can often export your data but it’s rarely in a format that can be easily consumed by another service. There is no technological barrier to making this a requirement. It is a doing-business/mindset barrier.
Why it matters? We all produce a massive amount of content. Much of that content is likely forgettable / useless. But the volume alone justifies a second look. Within the stores of content we produce there is value. Yet no company is able to show us a consolidated view of our comment in an automated way. There are many manual solutions.
Lawsuits are Easier than Regulation
It’s interesting to consider that in most countries today there is so much regulation that it becomes easier to attempt to punish/change unacceptable behavior through lawsuits/antitrust action rather than drafting new restrictive regulation. I imagine part of that is reluctance to confront the process of drafting legislation unless all other avenues have been explored. And I think it shows a possibly healthy byproduct of so much legislation that there is a general reluctance to deal with the likely unintended consequences of the new laws. Better the evil that we know.
Yet these dynamics don’t seem to work any more in the world today. Existing regulation allows governments to fine global multinationals and tech companies a few percentage points of their monthly profit.
We need new regulations that incorporate the reality of the world we live in where mega companies with secure lockedin mega profits and impactful short-term social value are held accountable for mid and long term social value.
These are not new ideas
The idea of universal standards for these topics is not new. Humanity has an idealistic goal to make information, identity, ownership and communication frictionless, universal concepts. Many blockchain believers think that it will be the solution. I don’t think we need blockchain. Existing encryption technologies and API architecture can easily service our needs for today. And the tech companies have more then enough profit, innovation and ‘tech’ to make it happen.
We now need regulatory oversight and mandates to take things further. That ensures that the base-line for the industry moves up and all players are equally harmed and benefited by the change.
This also means that we will make it difficult for new ‘core-messaging’ service providers to enter the market. That makes sense to me. Consumers are harmed by too many messaging options, just like they would be harmed by too many telephone companies all trying to lay their own phone lines. The best outcome for society often involves picking winners.
We need to ensure that those winners we pick are held accountable for distributing their profits. Presently, we are picking winners by default and pretending that they won all by themselves; allowing them to consolidate and monopolize their winnings. Which is a dangerous delusion for those companies (as it creates an atmosphere of compliancy and entitlement) and for us as we loose out on benefits that redistribution would have provided us.