Fix the Internet, Not Big Tech – Knight Foundation

Fix the Internet, Not Big Tech

I’m as disappointed, frustrated and furious about the tech giants as you are. I didn’t sign up for an internet composed of “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of text from the other four” (to quote Tom Eastman), nor a world of ubiquitous private-public surveillance, “engagement maximization,” precarious gig work and disciplinary technology.

Hell, I’ve been angry about this for decades, and on the one hand, I’m glad to see the world catching up to the level of urgency that digital rights activists have been at for most of this century (remember when Finland declared broadband a human right in 2011 and the commentariat sneered and said that human rights were won by confronting Bull Connor on a bridge in Birmingham, Alabama, not by clicking links on an online petition?).

But on the other hand, I’m terrified. You see, I care about the internet. The platforms can go hang. I am not interested in improving Mark Zuckerberg’s competence in ruling over the digital lives of three billion people. I’m not interested in replacing Mark Zuckerberg with someone better suited to the job of Unelected Eternal Digital Czar of Three Billion Lives.

I want to abolish that job.

So much of our discourse today is about how we can get the tech platforms to behave better. What moderation rules should Facebook have? When should Google downrank a site in the search engine that 90 percent of the world uses? Which apps should be in the only App Store iOS users are permitted to have on their mobile devices?

Making the tech platforms better is a fool’s errand. A decade ago, the leaders of the tech sector were pitched to us as geniuses who had the answers to all of our problems. Today, tech leaders are pitched as evil geniuses, whose sorcerous intellect with demonic wickedness combined to destroy the world. There’s plenty of techies who are happy with this proposition––an evil genius is still a genius, after all. (To quote Peter Thiel: “I’d rather be seen as evil than incompetent.”)

 I know these people. They’re not evil geniuses. They’re ordinary mediocrities, no better or worse than you or me. They didn’t wreck the internet through brilliance––rather, it’s the combination of fallibility and unaccountability that produced our current dismal circumstance.

Despite what the economics profession would have you believe, there’s nothing natural about tech monopolies. Yes, tech platforms enjoy “network effects”: people installed Windows because there was a lot of Windows software and there was a lot of Windows software because so many people installed Windows; people join Facebook because their friends are there, and the more people there are on Facebook, the more reasons there are to join; webmasters tailor their webpages for Google because Google controls a firehose of search traffic, and searchers use Google because they are able to construct such detailed indices of the web thanks to all those cooperative webmasters.

Network effects are real, and they’re how Big Tech got so big. But they’re not how it stays big.

Big Tech consolidates its network effect gains by imposing high switching costs––by rigging the game so you have to give up a lot if you try to leave. Facebook deliberately imposes barriers to staying in touch with your friends if you leave Facebook (there’s no reason you couldn’t exchange messages, likes and other “social” fooforaw with Facebook users without having a Facebook account). Apple forces you to give up your media and apps if you quit iOS. Leave Google, lose your iCloud drive and your Gmail archives.

 None of these barriers exist in a state of nature. It’s not merely that the platforms could engineer their systems to make them as easy to leave as they are to join––it’s also that the platforms sue, threaten, buy or crush any new market entrant that has the gall to modify their services to lower the switching costs.

Apple nearly ended up on the scrapheap of history in the early 2000s, thanks to Microsoft’s unwillingness to update Office for MacOS, which made it nearly impossible for a Mac user to exchange documents with the far more numerous Windows users. Rather than wait for Bill Gates to play nice and update MacOffice, Steve Jobs ordered some of his techies to reverse-engineer Microsoft’s proprietary file formats and create the iWork suite: Pages, Numbers and Keynote, all file formats compatible with Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Mac was saved.

This is interoperability, but not the polite, managed interop of standards and consortia. What Apple did to Microsoft was guerrilla warfare: adversarial interoperability (at Electronic Frontier Foundation, we call it “Competitive Compatibility” or “comcom” for short), where something new is plugged into an existing system without permission or cooperation.

Try to do that to Apple today: reverse-engineer iTunes and make a compatible program and they’ll carpet-bomb you with lawyer letters until the rubble bounces. Early Facebook offered MySpace refugees bots that let them continue to talk to their left-behind friends, tunnelling under Rupert Murdoch’s walled garden, but when a company called Power Ventures tried to do the same thing to Facebook, Zuck sued them into oblivion.

Big Tech doesn’t have users or customers, it has hostages, prisoners to high switching costs, maintained at lawyerpoint, backed by a pliant state all too happy to allow copyright, patent, terms of service and contract law be woven together into a monopolist’s charter––a legal regime that makes it a crime to put your interests ahead of the shareholders of a tech giant, a kind of felony contempt of business model.

We can’t fix Big Tech. Passing laws to make it “accountable” for harassment and disinformation and copyright infringement and all its other evils will not solve these problems (there is no AI that can tell the difference between bullies orchestrating harassment and a marginalized community commiserating over harassment). But it will provide Big Tech with a readymade excuse to object to interoperability: If we’re supposed to be policing everything our users post to prevent Bad Stuff, we can’t possibly allow gateways to other services that might subvert our wise oversight.

If we want to fix Big Tech, we should free the hostages of the walled gardens, not insist on better living conditions within the walls. Mandate open application programming interfaces (APIs) for tech platforms––managed ways for third parties to offer interconnections with Big Tech, letting users escape the walled garden without cutting off the people still behind the walls.

(Re-)legalize comcom. The tech platforms all “disrupted” the dominant actors they faced by practicing guerrilla interop, then did everything they could to ensure that no one could do unto them as they had done unto their forebears. Create an “interoperator’s defense” in law that offers an absolute defense against all claims for tinkerers, co-ops, nonprofits and startups who create new products and services that modify existing ones for legitimate purposes: accessibility, privacy, security, moderation and so on.

Yes, weakening Big Tech means that we can’t force Facebook to shut down harassers. But it also means that the survivors of harassment don’t have to beg Facebook to kick their tormentors off the platform––instead, they can run their own show with their own rules, and show harassers the door themselves.

And yes, weakening Big Tech’s power to block interoperators mean that they won’t be able to paternalistically protect us from privacy invaders but they’re terrible at that––and they are hopelessly conflicted. Facebook says it will stop the next Cambridge Analytica from harvesting your data, but Facebook will never stop Facebook from harvesting your data. Google prevents identity thieves from mining your Gmail, but Google’s going to mine your Gmail forever. Apple won’t sell you out for direct marketers, but they will nonconsensually install an image scanner on your phone and block all working privacy tools from its Chinese App Stores.

Decisions about what does and does not constitute a privacy violation should take place in Congress, not a Mountain View boardroom. A freestanding national privacy law with a private right of action (giving you the right to sue when a company violates it, rather than hoping an Attorney General champions your cause) is the kind of tech regulation we desperately need––not rules about which speech the platforms have to block. Not just because those rules are impossible to enforce, but because they preclude anyone from even trying to challenge Big Tech because entering the market requires enough capital to hire an infinite boiler room filled with content moderators.

The problem isn’t that we have the wrong kind of Big Tech platforms––the problem is Big Tech. The answer isn’t to make Big Tech better––it’s to render it obsolete.