Probably all of us have some frustration with one or more of the Tech Giants who are being targeted by Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s “Ending Platform Monopolies Act.” It is tempting to cheer on efforts to offer a cure to common Big Tech disease, checking their power over us. But, like a layperson coming up with the wrong treatment for a serious illness, this and other similar proposals, dangerously operate on oversimplification that threatens to make our technology much worse while ignoring the genuine Big Tech problems staring us down.
Jayapal’s bill has all the marks of a piece of legislation written by people who don’t understand what they are trying to regulate. The bill divides up the technological universe in the way a neophyte would: you have the hardware; “platforms” such as iOS or Windows; and apps like FaceTime or Messages. Simple enough, right?
The politicos are seeking to drive a wedge between the second and third category, saying companies like Apple and Google who make platforms shouldn’t be able to “disadvantage” competitors by showing preference for their own apps and services.
On the surface, this makes sense: why should Apple’s iCloud be built in, but Dropbox has to be downloaded separately? Why is Apple Music included, but Spotify isn’t? Why should iMessage be built in, but not Facebook Messenger or Signal? It seems obvious: just leave these things off the device and let the end user pick the best one!
The moment you do that, the experience of using the device beings to degrade. Right now, an iPhone includes iMessage, giving the user the expected experience of being able to send messages as soon as she turns on her new phone, and does so in a way that respects her privacy better than most alternatives. Remove the default, as would likely happen under this bill, and a novice turning on his new iPhone would be confused, at best. Worse, with little understanding of his choices, he might randomly choose a privacy invasive, insecure option in his haste to text his wife to say he got his new phone.
Does Apple get a bit of an advantage? Sure, but in a reasonable way akin to a car manufacturer getting “an advantage” by including its own stereo system in a car. The enthusiast can buy a different stereo, but everyone gets something workable. The existence of everything from WhatsApp to Signal demonstrate that many people replace their “stereos,” but the default gets everybody off to a good start.
It’s hard to imagine we’d be better off with a phone that lacks messaging, music and the like out of the box. Nor would the purge necessarily stop with those sorts of apps I suspect Jayapal (and probably nearly anyone advocating for this bill) have in mind. It’d almost certainly go deeper.
Rewind to the 1990’s: most computers couldn’t even connect to the Internet without several pieces of what we now consider “the platform” being installed. They were seen instead as apps. When you wanted to get started on “cyberspace” with a PC, you typically bought a “Winsock” app, a web browser and maybe some other tools like an FTP client if you wanted to be able to upload files.
The vague language of a bill like Jayapal’s leaves open the possibility that a company could argue Apple was “privileging” its own core networking functionality and try to force us back to those bad old days. Does anyone really want to find a physical disk of a network driver before your smartphone can check for email or Twitter?
Facebook famously violated Apple’s policies a few years back, trying to insert itself into the networking system as what is known as a VPN so that it could (better) track what you did. How far-fetched is it to imagine Facebook would complain Apple “privileged” its own networking core over “Facebook Networking,” an alternative it could spin up that gave it those tracking abilities but lured in users because it promised a better Instagram experience?
The “Ending Platform Monopolies Act” would open this can of worms.
A part of what the turn of the century Microsoft antitrust case revolved around was precisely this issue. When Microsoft added a web browser to Windows — something that seems completely obvious now — there was genuine discussion on whether “the platform” should come with one. This is recent history, not an insane caricature of Jayapal’s bill.
The alternative is not inaction, but properly focused efforts on the real problems. App Stores run by the platform provider and sensible “core” apps provided by the same are not the real issue. Apple itself, a stalwart defender of important user-protecting principles like privacy, is also one of the least likely candidates for being “the real problem.”
An obvious starting point is Google. Not only does it have a monopoly on web search — making it gatekeeper to how most of us find almost everything — but they also have a stranglehold on web advertising. In other words, Google determines what sites are found and then welds its enormous power to determine if those sites are worthy of making money once found. It also has overwhelming dominance in web video (YouTube) and tracks you throughout all of it, turning you into a product from the start to finish of most of your online journeys.
Let’s try another: Amazon has exerted its power to replace a vast array of small and large retailers while coaxing the survivors into depending on it for order fulfillment (warehousing, delivery, etc.). Meanwhile, it takes those surviving retailers’ private sales and product data and uses it to create competing products to undermine its own clients, often destroying them by selling those knockoffs for little or no profit.
Or consider how it flexes its monopoly power in book sales. Having vanquished most of its bookselling competition, Amazon now openly censors books from (even mainstream) viewpoints it dislikes. Meanwhile, it has pushed to have authors publish, not just sell, their physical and electronic books through the company while acting far more antagonistically towards libraries than traditional publishers. It has also repeatedly used controversial “most-favored nation” agreements to ensure authors and product manufacturers cannot sell their wares outside of Amazon for less than on Amazon.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has spoken for several years on how a bill like Jayapal’s might be turned towards issues such as these, severing “the platform” (Amazon’s store, in this case) from the equivalent of apps (items we shop for). The bill is essentially a war on “private label” products, a normal and good part of most major retailers. Whether dealing with operating systems, like iOS, or online stores, like Amazon, this is torching the house to kill a spider.
In Amazon’s case, the problem is not private labels, but bringing other retailers in as clients and then misappropriating their data to undermine them. It is Amazon’s worrisome level of control over the dissemination of books from the time they are authored to the moment they rest in our hands and then using that power to purge ideas it dislikes. And, of course, tracking us all the while — just like Google — to a degree twentieth century despots could only dream of.
Ditto Facebook on that count, which controls three of the biggest social networks: its namesake, Instagram and WhatsApp; four if you count Facebook Messenger separately.
And then there is the issue that most of us have the choice of getting home Internet only through one or, if we are lucky, two giant communications conglomerates, such as AT&T and Comcast, who function under government sanctioned monopolies and yet are allowed to provide favored deals (such as faster speeds) to their favorite content providers with no regard to the preferences of end users like us. To add insult to injury, these providers join with the rest of Big Tech in tracking us while we are online so that they too — you guessed it — can turn us into products to sell to advertisers.
Do we need new Big Tech regulation? Perhaps, but not in the forms Jayapal, Warren and others in both parties seem to be suggesting right now. Their proposals are, at best, based on a rudimentary understanding of technology. As we know in so many areas of life, a little knowledge welded as if one has great knowledge is often how we do great damage.
The right answer to tech policy may be hard to find. But the answer to proposals like “Ending Platform Monopolies Act” is easy: they are dangerous and anyone who depends on technology should vigorously oppose them.