You know an Internet company is big when your friends think you’re weird for opting out of their services. In 2014, Chris Hartgerink was fed up with what he calls “corporate surveillance” and wanted to be more mindful of his privacy. He began an arduous process of disentangling his life from Gmail and Google, which took more than a year. When Hartgerink informed everyone that he would soon only be reachable on an encrypted ProtonMail email, his friends were disbelieving. They kept asking him, “Why are you moving email?”
“This social aspect just made opting-out of these services even more difficult,” says Hartgerink who is a Mozilla Fellow and a PhD candidate in statistics at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. “I’m sure it would have prevented others from making the same decision.”
The network control of major Internet services is only part of the grip they hold on our lives. Through sheer size and diverse holdings, a few companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon – or if you live in China, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba – have become intertwined not only with our daily lives, but with all aspects of the global economy, civic discourse and democracy itself.
These are companies born of the dreams of Internet pioneers. They have supported billions of people from all walks of life to realize the benefits of the Internet. They have helped human communication, creativity and commerce flourish. Without them, we would have less information, less speed, less efficiency – less laughter!
Where contradictions lurk is in the consolidation of power. The problem isn’t that these companies have billion dollar valuations, hundreds of millions of users or large acquisition portfolios. It’s that they are too big. Through monopolistic business practices that are specific to the digital age, they undermine privacy, openness and competition on the Web.
Corporations are gaining unfettered access to our personal lives (just try hiding a pregnancy from online marketers). They box out competitors, restricting innovation in the process. As their capacity to make sense of massive amounts of data grows through advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, their powers are also likely to advance into adjacent businesses through vertical integrations in hardware, software, infrastructure, automobiles, media, insurance and more – unless we find a way to disrupt them or break them up.
How? If you delete your Facebook account tomorrow, your mom will probably mind the most. But the future of a company born only 14 years ago is not predetermined. Teenagers are growing noticeably tired of Facebook, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg now acknowledges – in a year of exceptionally bad publicity – that they need us to feel “our time is well spent.”
Companies and technologies can change, and so can the regulatory environment around them. Merger enforcement and competition law are being called on to fight for a healthier Internet in many countries. This year, India’s antitrust regulator fined Google $21 million USD for anti-competitive behavior (the process began seven years ago).
Last year, an even bigger $2.8 billion USD fine was levied against Google by the European Commission (this process also started seven years ago, and is being appealed). And Facebook, Apple and Amazon have all been probed regarding unfair competition.
These actions show that governments can play a role in rebalancing power. They also show how slow and outdated our antitrust models are. We need to rethink them so they can be more effective in the fast moving era of digital markets and network effects.
Real technical interoperability could also be an effective way to rebalance power and open up competition: Imagine if you could open WhatsApp and chat with someone using Signal. It could boost competition between existing services and innovation in new ones. Interoperability could ultimately be an imposed standard condition of future mergers.
If users had control over their own data and could move it freely to other services, it would decrease “lock in” and empower them to move between services of their choosing, including ones that don’t have hundreds of millions of users. This principle of “data portability” is a requirement of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May, but it’s not yet clear exactly how it will be enforced.
We have grown used to enjoying free Internet services in exchange for giving companies access to our personal data, which they repackage and resell to digital advertisers who wish to target a specific audience or behaviors.
Google and Facebook control 84% of global digital ad revenue, outside China. It has not gone unnoticed by them that 36% of desktop Internet users now use ad-blockers to avoid annoying ads, excessive tracking, malware, misinformation and slower Web browsing. They are engaging in campaigns for “better ads,” but more equitable models for advertising are not likely to be born from this.
Similar levels of consolidation have emerged in the world’s foremost ‘independent’ Internet market: China. For example, WeChat, a mobile app of Tencent, is a service so ubiquitous that it is used for practically all online interactions. “It is like Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Yelp, Square and Snapchat rolled into one, with a hundred other apps thrown in,” writes Aman Agarwal in a Hackernoon post with app screenshots. You can even browse the Web from within. This year, WeChat accounts will be tested in several locations in China for suitability as electronic national ID.
Plenty of nations (authoritarian and otherwise) glance enviously at China as one of the few countries that has effectively limited the rise of Silicon Valley companies within its borders. It has enabled local alternatives to thrive in the country that is home to the biggest number of Internet users. Yet, China only serves as an another example of what extreme consolidation of power looks like, and what a distant future of even bigger Internet giants could bring.
Throughout the rest of the world, Facebook, Google and Amazon dominate the Internet experience. Developing countries have the smallest share of the global app economy, and it’s here that complaints of “digital colonialism” are gaining traction.
If no search engine can ever challenge Google, and no local apps can ever gain a sustainable market share, the opportunity promised by a free and open Internet erode. Open source challengers to social media giants, such as Diaspora and Mastodon, are few and far between, and they may at best deliver a proof of concept for an alternative future unless people can move their data freely.
Laws like Europe’s GDPR are promising on issues like data portability but they will not deliver meaningful results unless consumers make specific demands of companies and regulators. Even when the law is on our side, we need to say: “Hey companies, this is how I want to move my photos around between Facebook, Instagram and my iPhone.”
The only way to keep the Internet in the hands of all of us is to ask for it, build it and demand it. Consumers, governments and technologists need to push for fair competition, open innovation, interoperability and standards so the Internet can evolve in more healthy and humane ways.
OK Google: Delete My Account (No Wait. No Really.), Chris Hartgerink, 2018
Can Washington Stop Big Tech Companies? Don’t Bet on It, Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, 2018
Competition through interoperability, Chris Riley, 2017
My Experiment Opting Out of Big Data Made Me Look Like a Criminal, Janet Vertesi, Time Magazine, 2014