Competition, Civil Liberties, and the Internet Giants

Competition, Civil Liberties, and the Internet Giants
Jun 27 2018
The power of the Internet historically arose from its edges: innovation, growth, and freedom came from its users and their contributions, rather than from some centrally controlled core of overseers. But today, for an increasing number of users, there is a powerful center to the net—and a potentially uncompetitive and unrepresentative center at that.
The whole Internet itself is still vast and complex, enabling billions of users to communicate regardless of their physical location. Billions of websites, apps, and nearly costless communications channels remain open to all. Yet too many widely relied-upon functions are now controlled by a few giant companies. Worse, unlike previous technology cycles, the dominance of these companies has proven to be sticky. It’s still easy and cheap to put up a website, build an app, or organize a group of people online—but a few large corporations dominate the key resources needed to do those things. That, in turn, gives those companies extraordinary power over speech, privacy, and innovation.
Some Specifics
Google and Facebook dominate the tools of information discovery and the advertising networks that track users’ every move across much of the Western world. Along with Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, and a few similar companies, they moderate an enormous volume of human communication. This gives them extraordinary power to censor and to surveil.
Amazon dominates online retail in the United States and back-end hosting across much of the globe, making it a chokepoint for a broad range of other services and activities. A few credit card networks process most online payments, giving them the power to starve any organization that relies on sales or donations. Even more fundamentally, most people in the U.S. have little or no ability to choose which company will connect them to the Internet in the first place. That gives a few broadband ISPs the power to block, throttle, and discriminate against Internet users.
Civil Liberties at Stake
A lack of competition and choice impacts nearly every facet of Internet users’ civil liberties. When so much of our interaction with friends, family, and broader social circles happens on Facebook, its arrangement and takedowns of content matter. When so much search happens on Google, and so much video discovery on YouTube, their rankings of results and recommendations matter. When Google, Facebook, and Amazon amass a huge trove of people’s communications as well as data about purchases, physical movements, and Internet use, their privacy policies and practices matter. When Comcast and AT&T are the only options for fixed broadband Internet access for millions of people, their decisions to block, throttle or prioritize certain traffic matter.
The influence of these companies is so great that their choices can impact our lives as much as any government’s. And as Amazon’s recent sale of facial recognition technology to local police demonstrates, the distance between the big tech companies and government is shrinking.
Diverse Voices Need Diverse Options
Careful action to bring a variety of options back in these important portions of the Internet could re-empower users. Competition—combined with and fostered by meaningful interoperability and data portability—could let users vote with their feet by leaving a platform or service that isn’t working for them and taking their data and connections to one that does. That would encourage companies to work to keep their users rather than hold them hostage.
More competition can also strengthen civil liberties. Innovators could develop alternative apps and platforms that safeguard their users’ speech, protect their privacy, foster community, and promote constructive debate, confident that those tools will have a level playing field to reach potential users. And those alternatives don’t have to be commercial: decentralized, federated, or other co-operative solutions can put power back into the hands of their users, giving them the ability to change and adapt tools.
Increasing competition by itself won’t fix all of these problems. But it’s one of the few strategies that, if handled correctly by courts and policymakers, has the promise of opening up space for innovation from the bottom up, driven by individuals, small businesses, and communities with great ideas.
The good news is some competition does exist. We have surveillance-free search by companies like DuckDuckGo and Qwant, open source social media tools like Mastodon and Secure Scuttlebutt, independent services like Snapchat and Yelp, and competitive ISPs like Sonic, just to name a few.  But many of these are under threat from the giants, and many, many more options are needed.

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