Re-decentralisation by enforcing interoperability. What shall we do with Facebook & the Internet?

01.07.2018

Internet no longer is an innovative space, where anyone can design a portal which can in a few years succeed globally. Theoretically, everyone can create a brand new social network; in practice, catching up with Facebook is pretty much impossible – attracting the first million of users has become more difficult than ever. And even if someone manages to do so, they are bought out and absorbed by Zuckerberg’s company. It is therefore high time to find solutions that will restore a competitive market on the Internet. For a start, we may enforce portals interoperability standards, enabling different websites to exchange our messages, posts and information. Perhaps it is just a matter of a few years until we start perceiving the way social media function today as absurd as if we couldn’t call a friend with a contract in T-Mobile just because we’d have Vodafone.

During his testimony in front of the American Congress, Mark Zuckerberg was asked whether he believed Facebook has any competition – and if it does, who its rivals are. He tried to dodge these questions, but once he was asked directly whether he thought his platform was a monopolist, he said it certainly doesn’t look that way to him.

The audience burst out laughing. And they were right. Facebook currently owns four out of five biggest (as in the ones with most users) communication apps: Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. Snapchat is the only exception to the rule.

The winner has taken it all

In a search for the source of problems with privacy and data abuse, one must acknowledge that Facebook’s monopoly on Internet communication appears to be one of the main issues. There are obviously more of them, for example, the law which falls behind the galloping development of technology. But the fundamental problem is that the Internet is no longer this innovative space, where anyone can design their website, which will gather millions of users globally in a short time. It has instead become a market in which you can – if you are terrific – at most reach the “glass ceiling”: the moment when you’re attractive enough to be bought by one of the monopolists: Facebook, Google or Amazon.

Why can’t anyone overtake Facebook? It’s all due to the network effects. If we’ve got three people and two of them use the same online communication platform, the third one is more than likely to choose it too. The more users a platform has, the faster it can attract new ones. The biggest take it all.

At the moment, nearly one-third of humankind and two-thirds of all Internet users (that is 2.2 billion out of 3.6 billion users) are registered on Facebook. Some of them – particularly in the Third World countries – pretty much identify the Internet with Facebook.

Theoretically, everyone can create their social network – it has never been easier. In practice, catching up with Facebook is impossible, as attracting the first million users has become more difficult than ever. And even if someone manages to achieve just that, they are bought out and absorbed by the giants. This is exactly the case of WhatsApp, Instagram and 64 other apps Zuckerberg has bought until 2017.

The online advertising market has in 2017 overtaken the U.S. TV advertising market, thus becoming the most substantial piece of the advertising spending cake. However, although its total value increases by a sweet and steady few percents every year, firms other than Google and Facebook grow slower than the average pace. These two giants keep on increasing their market shares, which together already account for well over 50% of the market – a number some put as high as 84%. Google has in 2017 spent most (more than 18 billion dollars) on lobbying in the US. Amazon and Facebook’s expenses weren’t much lower. These three firms, along with Apple, amounted to 40% of growth in S&P 500. There’s enough convincing proof that the concentration of money and power in the hands of a few Silicon Valley’s “golden children” is becoming a real problem.

Law must keep up with technology

It, therefore, shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are more and more discussions about anti-monopoly policies and measures aiming at limiting or at least balancing expansion of tech giants so that their users are more effectively protected.

There’s a need for transnational regulation of this market and the EU has already made its attempt to tackle the problem. It recently introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives people back partial control over their data. Europeans are, for instance, able to transfer our data to another platform or to amend or remove our data. GDPR forces websites, firms and organisations of all kind to specify how they intend to use their users’ data the moment when they ask for consent. GDPR also introduces significantly higher fines (up to 4% of annual turnover) for data leakages and breaking the law.

It’s good news that the European Union is becoming the world champion of a movement for the protection of personal data. Zuckerberg already said that Facebook would adopt most of the GDPR measures globally, although they might not be as “drastic” everywhere.

We certainly must take steps to boost programmers’ ethical awareness and create a stronger legal framework for tech whistleblowing, as well as ensure the protection of people who work on algorithms and possess information about breaches of law their firms are guilty of. Methods used by Cambridge Analytica were no secret – even the company’s CEO openly discussed the use of Facebook data during a few conferences. What turned out to be a massive game-changer was the testimony of Christopher Wylie, the company’s former employee. He was the one who disclosed that Cambridge Analytica kept on using data even after Facebook had asked the firm to remove it. He only decided to do so because he has after a few years concluded that the practice was immoral. If it weren’t for his moral dilemmas, we would probably still be living in a fool’s paradise.

A discussion about a tech version of ‘Hippocratic oath’ has already begun. But we will not become aware of all problems and illegal practices associated with the use of our private data until programmers from leading tech firms realise they have a certain degree of social responsibility to the users of apps they work on.

Tear down vertical monopolies. Have you ever tried to uninstall a Youtube app?  

In his “Esquire” article, Professor Scott Galloway examines the problem from a different angle. In his opinion, the main threat to competition is creating closed ecosystems, tech silos. To use Messenger, you need a Facebook account. Buying “Alexa” – Amazon’s “virtual assistant” – guarantees that whenever we have an intention to buy something, it will find this product or service on Amazon’s website.

If you already use Google and Gmail, it seems natural to use Google Maps too. It also implies signing up for a YouTube account rather than registering on Vimeo. Out of plain convenience, we subscribe to more and more services from just a few providers.

Such a state of affairs makes it extremely difficult to create a rival search engine, film website or maps app. Users find it much easier to use the services provided by Google anyway. The giants, which hire the best programmers and have multimillion-dollar budgets at their disposal to buy out their competition and lock us in the world of their services.

An American court ruling against the then tech king Microsoft should be regarded as an inspiration for dealing with similar practices. The Redmond giant used to “convince” users of Windows operating systems to use the Internet Explorer browser (and at the same time, indirectly, also the Bing search engine) by making it harder to uninstall it. The ruling was supposed to force Microsoft to split into two separate firms, of which one would be handling operating systems and the other one the rest of software. Eventually, it didn’t happen, but a massive fine and successive implementation of competition-friendly measures resulted in the creation of Mozilla Firefox a few months later. Today, we no longer have to use the terrible Explorer. Ironically, such verdict largely contributed to the rise of Google – as Firefox refrained from promoting Bing, it opened the door for Google to conquer the market.

Now let’s fast-forward 18 years from this ruling, back to our time: have you ever tried to delete YouTube or Gmail from Android? It’s impossible. You can surely disable it, but it isn’t quite the same, is it?

Interoperability: we need competition for re-decentralisation of the Internet

Tim Berners-Lee – a guy who invented WWW and the web as we know it today – currently leads a team (composed of scientists from, among others, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Oxford and University of Southampton) working on a project entitled SOLID. Its ambitious goal is to allow users to keep their data so that they can control how and to whom it is transferred. This way, we could potentially witness the emergence of decentralised social networks. Online platforms would cease to be the trustees of our data on their terms, established in regulations that had not been negotiated with us. Instead, our data would remain on our servers and thus under our full control. As brilliant as that sounds in theory, such proposal requires a complete transformation of rules the Web follows and – probably – cannot be done without the introduction of strong regulations. And even if these are in place, the task might still prove to be too complex.

Such an approach has, however, an exciting side-effect that is likely to improve the current system – it indirectly forces platforms interoperability. As of now, it is in the interest of each firm to lock its users up in a silo of its services by preventing them from using other platforms – the more time we spend with a company’s services, the more data they get, the more they profit. This is precisely why we are unable to use Facebook to send a private message to a friend who only has a Twitter account. It just makes more sense for Facebook to wait until our friend gets lonely on Twitter, and – as they can’t bear not being able to participate in group chats or browsing through holiday photos anymore – decides to set up a Facebook account, thus boosting Zuckerberg’s advertising revenue. While it is true that we can browse through Instagram photos on Facebook, it is only because the same company owns both apps.

It is perhaps high time to consider a solution that is radical, but most realistic of all ideas discussed above. Precisely, it might be worth negotiating legal and technical standards of platforms interoperability. These could be created by the World Wide Web Consortium, the  organisation that sets international Web standards since 1995.

The goal is for apps and platforms to be able to – or even to be obliged to – communicate with each other. It should be possible for us to access content from one platform through the other. A person who only has Twitter would then be able to participate in Messenger group chats freely.

Having an Instagram account would, in turn, enable us to exchange pictures with Snapchat users. Companies and media outlets that communicate through social media could then focus on managing their profile on one platform as the users of all others would still be receiving notifications from such a public account.

We would effectively open up the market that has lately been becoming increasingly closed. Start-ups would again be more likely to gain new users: those wishing to switch to a new platform would be able to stay in touch with friends who are not yet ready to take such bold step. Everyone would have a choice: those concerned about privacy could switch to a paid social network that offers better privacy protection than Facebook.

Obviously, there’s no way we’ll ever see self-regulation of that market. Big firms will never propose such solution because it is just not in their interest. It thus seems necessary to draft legislation that will be capable of pushing – or even forcing them – to subject themselves to the process. After all, it might be just a matter of a few years until we start perceiving the way social media function today as absurd as if we couldn’t call a friend with a contract in T-Mobile just because we’d have Vodafone.

Time to re-decentralise the Web

On the 12th of March 2018, exactly on the 29th birthday of his invention and a few days before the outbreak of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, already mentioned Tim Berners-Lee had published an open letter. What was its central message? The Internet is becoming centralised and monopolised; we must take action to counteract these processes. Websites are coming under increasing pressure from a few gatekeepers, whose activity limits innovation in the Web. Nowadays we access most content by clicking on links on Facebook, Google or Twitter rather than by directly opening websites. Such a state of affairs gives popular platforms great power over what people read. An example? A recent minor change to Facebook’s policy, the one that aimed at promoting friends’ posts at the expense of fan pages, resulted in the reach of jagiellonski24.pl profile falling by several dozen percents and the number of our portal’s views by 20%.

One potential solution is to split firms into categories based on the type of service they provide. Another idea, which is perhaps more natural and more likely to open the market up to the competition, would be to (as already mentioned) force apps to open up for cross-platform cooperation: enforce interoperability. These two proposals are complementary – it is conceivable that splitting companies into groups itself will not only tear these tech silos down but also encourage at least partial cooperation of platforms. However, it must be underlined that neither of these solutions will be put into practice unless there is better legislation and continued development of tech standards.

We must start looking for legal and tech solutions that will work towards the preservation of “Internet for everyone”, as Berners-Lee imagined it, instead of consolidating the network of tech “big four” (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook). So far, we’ve been letting them maintain the initiative. Zuckerberg’s hearing in front of the Congress and a class action lawsuit on behalf of 71 million users against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are a step forward, but they are still just reactions to what has already happened. We lack proposals for how to solve problems of the future.

Translation from Polish: Aleksandra Wróbel

 

This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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