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How to tame the tech titans (economist.com)
194 points by kawera 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 162 comments



FTA:

> The tricky task for policymakers is to restrain them without unduly stifling innovation.

This suggests a profound lack of understanding of the power imbalance between the Tech Giants(TM) and the rest of the world. The fact that these big companies operate what amounts to mini-surveillance states and face little to no scrutiny about it, and this is not even mentioned in the article, is proof this person has not thought deeply about this problem. The additional fact that these huge Titans dominate vast monocultures puts us all at risk of catastrophic failure or the vulnerability of cyber attack and should scare the bejesus out of policymakers, militaries, and agencies tasked with securing national infrastructure.

People need to think harder about how bad it would be if, e.g. Apple or Google actually _were_ evil, or were co-opted into evil overnight. Or what if they were just evil _to you_.

Some of these companies essentially possess "kill switches" over vast parts of the computing landscape. Laptops are a bad software update from being bricks; the cloud is divided up into huge chunks that could go dark; one provider holds more than a third of the world's email; 90% of the world's search traffic.

These entities don't need to be somehow (gently) "restrained", but as a civilization we need to rethink the power we've ceded to them at a very fundamental level, or we risk growing ever weaker and more dependent on them.


> these big companies operate what amounts to mini-surveillance states and face little to no scrutiny about it

Cynically, the reason for this is that their mini-surveillance states are contributors to a larger, more literal surveillance state; their would-be regulator is benefitting from this part of their behavior.

Some (Yahoo, Verizon, possibly Amazon) look to be actively complicit. But even 'resisters' like Apple are better for surveillance than a decline in online communication or a move to decentralized, E2EE approaches. And in the apocalyptic case, it's useful to encourage reliance on a primary communication channel that can be disabled on demand. The 'kill switch' power is another one that can be borrowed by the actual state.

I agree that rethinking this power distribution is an important move, but it's worth at least retaining an awareness of the cynical narrative: that regulation efforts against tech giants won't touch the areas where these companies are government proxies.


Apple appears to have sold out to the China government and at least Google chose instead to leave.

http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/10/technology/apple-china-iclou... Apple: iCloud in China will be run by a state-owned company - Jan ...


So did AWS: https://techcrunch.com/2017/11/13/aws-exits-china/

If you want to have any technology business in china, that is your only option. Facebook, Google, Uber and many more have all failed because china won't let a foreign company win own huge technological market/data.


>>if , e.g. Apple or Google actually _were_evil

Sean Parker on Facebook (and other Social Media giants) exploiting dopamine triggers and psychological drives for social validation: "[We're] exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology ... [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway." [0]

https://www.axios.com/sean-parker-unloads-on-facebook-god-on...


Isn't that a fancy way of saying they are making their product do things that people enjoy, so that people will use the product?

This reminds me of the time I once had a chance encounter with Richard Feynman and was able to solve right there for him a particular instance of the local labeling problem in applied chronometrics that had stumped him.

(Less fancy version: Feynman asked what time it was. I looked at my watch and told him).


>Isn't that a fancy way of saying they are making their product do things that people enjoy

Humans have a tendency (called "hyperbolic discounting" in the literature) to choose a small immediate reward over a larger delayed reward. In this case, the small immediate reward is reading an interesting post on Facebook, and the delayed reward is... pretty much anything else.

If we're lucky, people will become aware of this bias and start making better decisions, by designing their life to align their available immediate rewards with their choice of distant rewards.

This is basically what things like Fitbits do -- provide small immediate rewards (number of steps going up!) that align with your desired larger distant reward (being in shape).

Or the very notion of "getting off Facebook" -- increasing the personal effort/mental distance required to claim a small reward that does not align with a more distant goal.

The reason this is particularly challenging is that "the Internet" is very useful for doing things that do align with our legitimate, long-term goals, but once the Internet is available, the distance to "Facebook rewards" is low.

It might be interesting if Facebook, as a response to this backlash, finds a way to offer short term rewards that do align with your long-term goals...


>> Social Media giants) exploiting dopamine triggers and psychological drives for social validation

> Isn't that a fancy way of saying they are making their product do things that people enjoy, so that people will use the product?

No, It's actually a fancy way of saying they design their products to be addictive, like slot machines are for many people. It's not true enjoyment, but mindless engagement exploited for profit.


It's not true enjoyment, but mindless engagement exploited for profit.

Slot machines are "enjoyment" for many millions.

It's a tightrope walk that doesn't really lead anywhere constructive to try and make a judgement between good, bad and "true" enjoyment. Unfortunately because it's so subjective and laden with judgement calls, you'll never settle on a definition for what is and is not a "true" form or enjoyment.


I don't really agree with that. Maybe that's true if you try to come up with a positive and universal definition of true enjoyment, but I think it's totally possible to rope off areas that are clearly not it. Those areas would include slot machines and much of social networking that resembles them.

I think arguments against drawing distinctions between good and bad (e.g. "who are you to say that slot machines aren't true enjoyment") often tend to just serve to distract people from confronting real problems. I'm sure they're well-liked by the gambling industry and others who profit from those problems. Not to say that was your indention or that you were approaching this in bad faith.


I'm really trying to get better with my discussion here, so what in my post could have been considered arguing in "bad faith?" I'm not trying to trick anyone into something here, I'm being pretty explicit about my POV.

I think it's totally possible to rope off areas that are clearly not it.

My point is that I think it might be locally possible for small enough groups, but for what we're talking about with whole swaths of industries like social media not only isn't it possible, it's likely misguided.


> I'm really trying to get better with my discussion here, so what in my post could have been considered arguing in "bad faith?" I'm not trying to trick anyone into something here, I'm being pretty explicit about my POV.

Just to be clear, I didn't think you were arguing in bad faith.

However, if I were a casino owner trying to answer criticism of slot machines, I'd go straight to the argument that "enjoyment is subjective" and "who is the critic to judge," whether I really believed it or not. That's because I'd be looking to deflect the true criticism, because I like making money from them and am unconcerned with the truth or good social policy. That would be bad faith.

Those arguments basically amount to "stop searching for the truth, no criticism allowed," so I think they're usually invalid at the current level of discussion, even though they have some truth at a different level.


Thanks for the response. I can see how it would seem to be a dodge type of a response.

Thoughtfully however, I argue that the statements you offer:

"enjoyment is subjective" and "who is the critic to judge,"

...are both valid positions and ones that I hold axiomatically true. So I'm genuinely saying that, although I personally find casinos irreducibly depressing from my subjective perspective, there exist people who find the same level of "happiness", "enjoyment" and "joy" - broadly defined - from slot machines as from any other activity.


>> "enjoyment is subjective" and "who is the critic to judge,"

> ...are both valid positions and ones that I hold axiomatically true.

Maybe in some cases, but I don't think it's correct axiomatically assume every repeated behavior labeled as "entertainment" is one that at least someone "enjoys."

> there exist people who find the same level of "happiness", "enjoyment" and "joy" - broadly defined - from slot machines as from any other activity.

I think that's an assumption, and I'm pretty skeptical of it, personally. I have not doubt there are people who genuinely enjoy other types of gambling (e.g. poker), but I doubt slot machines are anything better than an expensive distraction. They're just profitable Skinner boxes [1] that use variable-ratio positive reinforcement [2] to attempt to create a lasting habit that's resistant to "extinction" [3].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning_chamber#C...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinforcement#Simple_schedules

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_(psychology)


There is a category error though I think that gets conflated in these types of evaluations. For example you say "genuinely enjoy" - which makes a distinction between something which is not "genuine." This is the same philosophical distinction between epicureanism and hedonism. The former is claimed to be long term and holistic, the latter claimed as short term and vapid.

However making such distinctions are laced with cultural and other value based backgrounds.

The idea that an "expensive distraction" in the form of a slot machine is not happiness in the same way as Poker typifies this conflation.

You can also try and evaluate it from a utilitarian perspective. Perhaps the enjoyment from hitting a huge jackpot is several magnitudes greater than winning a pot of poker. It's also possible that the sadness from consecutively losing at slots is greater than the sadness from losing a single pot of Poker. Also there is a utility calculation in there for people who like strategy vs people who don't etc...

So I think it's impossible to say that poker (or whatever) is objectively better than slots (or whatever) because it scratches certain itches more or less.

It's also true that you can try and analyze second third etc... order effects of these things and evaluate the impact positively or negatively. Again though, it's a value trap and there is context that may tip the scales one way or another for a given scenario.

One way I think of this is with drug addicts. For a large percentage of hard drug addicts, they will substitute doing eg. Heroin, for being addicted to Caffeine, Cigarettes and support group meetings. Socially we view this as a positive substitution because the user is now using socially acceptable forms of addiction and have lowered their support of an illicit market, are less likely to die from an overdose etc... again though "dying of an overdose" isn't objectively a bad thing, it's a socially and contextually bad thing. Doug Stanhope's mom famously died of a controlled overdose at a "goodbye party" as her way of committing suicide. Everyone at the party knew it was happening and supported it, so the context was different and thus it was acceptable.

I think it's fine to add a value judgment onto how you interpret certain behaviors in the context of your personal code. However we as a species don't have a collectively agreed upon code of ethics. We are generally groomed and forced into the social code that we're brought up in. So to mandate morality is just reinforcing an arbitrary social code. You can try and get evolutionary biology on things, in terms of social codes driving "fitness" etc...however I feel the fitness argument seems to have diverged long ago from a social structure perspective. The most intelligent and "woke" people are having the least amount of babies.


He said he didn’t believe you were arguing in bad faith.

If you want to know what _could_ be said to be arguing in bad faith was basically an assertion that was close to “we’ll never know what is truly good or evil because it’s so subjective”. It could be seen as attempting to escape hatch in to the “great unknowables” so you “win” the debate.


“we’ll never know what is truly good or evil because it’s so subjective”

That's my genuine philosophical position though. Existential nihilism is a valid and well thought out epistemic position.

So does that still count as bad faith? It's not rhetorical juke, it's a philosophy.


Not necessarily, no.

Dopamine is involved in much more than enjoyment; importantly it is also spiked in "near misses" (think a card away from a royal flush) and excessive amounts are seemingly related to paranoia. And this is only from one of the pathways that dopamine affects; it is also linked to other aspects of cognitive function that play a role in attention and addiction (and various other parts of the brain).

Thus, a product that triggers dopamine responses isn't necessarily nefarious in and of itself. Indeed, an application that triggers dopamine response initially does so through mostly positive things (connecting with friends, sharing a story people like, winning at a roulette wheel). However, it's questionable when you start leveraging the power of dopamine to enforce attention, feed paranoia, and drive addiction; things like making sure people win often enough that they don't realize how much they're losing.


No it’s not.

Unless you think of a heroin addict as simply ‘enjoying a well designed product’.


sharing photos with your aunt is not like heroin


> sharing photos with your aunt is not like heroin

That's missing the point entirely. You can say heroin is a "well designed products" because it's users enjoy its immediate effects and keep coming back for more. That characterization is misleading because it leaves out all the downsides, including addiction. Similarly...

>> Isn't that a fancy way of saying they are making their product do things that people enjoy, so that people will use the product?

...is a misleading characterization for exactly the same reason.


Facilitating mass consumerism in the face of ecological self-destruction by manipulating billions of people's emotions and consciousness using the most powerful advertising machine in history, is a little bit like the self-destruction caused by heroin


Try flipping it; they could be trying to make their people enjoy things that their product does.


but than Sean Parker never gave back the millions he earned via past Facebook impl's...so his point is somewhat entirely hollow.. Its like a gun manufacturer saying automatics are bad but still making them


> but than Sean Parker never gave back the millions he earned via past Facebook impl's...so his point is somewhat entirely hollow..

That's not true at all. His explicit confession makes what once could only be speculation something much closer to a believable truth, which means people can do more about it. Chiding him for not donning sack-cloth in penance just undermines what good his statements could do.

> Its like a gun manufacturer saying automatics are bad but still making them

Does he even still work for them?


What's even more hypocritical is how the psychological foundations of their business model are never mentioned at launch, but out they come when FB has to justify something or are being criticized (as in Parker's instance). It's always after the fact, even though they are undoubtedly employing experts in the field to develop their features.


Instead of giving back, I'd agree if he paid (even some of) it forward and created an anti-FB/Goog/etc group that fought and lobbied for changes.


FB can withstand occasional bad press, but they can't withstand divestiture. I imagine Zuck's knives would come out in full force if Parker announced he was engaging your suggestion.


Interesting. So what would the "knives coming out" look like?


Likely a PR campaign, which wouldn't have his name on the byline, natch.


Am I mistaken in my impression that the bulk of innovation actually happens outside of titans, which the titans then buy? So even hamstringing them wouldn't actually stifle innovation?


It would seem like it. In terms of innovative research, it doesn’t seem like, say, Google Research is so much more productive than your average prestigious research university (albeit possessing perhaps a different set of focus areas). Similarly, when it comes to improvements on technical infrastructure, it seems Google plays a large role, but not an exceptionally large one, which makes sense by virtue of their massive deployments and having the capital to hire good engineers. Still, this doesn’t seem so outsized—Meltdown/Spectre weren’t discovered solely by Google, for example.

On the other hand, when it comes to product innovation, it definitely seems like the bulk of it happens, as you said, outside titans. Again picking on Google (sorry), V8, Google Docs, Google Maps, YouTube, and Android were all acquisitions! And though Google acquiring them might certainly have given them large amounts of resources to expand (e.g. subsidizing YouTube), there is definitely the question of stifling innovation and competition. Consider TinEye, who first published reverse image search; later Google just poured engineers onto their own reverse image search platform and copied it.

I think you can see the same dynamic with Facebook copying Snapchat features. It doesn’t seem like a healthy market.

EDIT: V8 might be better characterized as the product of an acquihire, actually. It might not fit with the rest of the list, which were all literally acquisitions of products developed outside Google.


> Consider TinEye, who first published reverse image search; later Google just poured engineers onto their own reverse image search platform and copied it.

I occasionally need to reverse-look-up images (mostly album covers without names) and tineye, in my personal experience, is vastly better. It finds matches for the exact image, with good context, etc. Google usually does pretty OK at finding similar images, but is less fantastic on matches, and if so those are joined in the noise of other 'close images'.

To get back on topic: google is best at pretending they're the best. in my experience there's better reverse lookups. ddg is less 'fuzzy', but offers a much better experience with !bangs, and because of the non-fuzziness they're quite good at finding things when you know more or less what text you're looking for. OSM is often better at local details, especially in smaller/rural areas.

Point being: google can throw whatever they want out there, and people will use it, and google says it's the best so people believe it. Because it's on their phones, because google suggests it, etc. I think the EU has a good point with their anti-trust/android business.


> Consider TinEye, who first published reverse image search; later Google just poured engineers onto their own reverse image search platform and copied it

If Google's product was better, wouldn't that mean it increased competition and innovation?


I think it’s a comparable situation to dumping[1]. Google can attract users from TinEye by virtue of their brand alone and subsidize their own product even if it is unprofitable. The result is that in the long term TinEye is unable to compete and disappears, after which point Google has no incentive to improve their service. The only entities left that can compete are other titans.

It also is a distortion in that it discourages investment into technical innovation if you are trying to make money as a non-titan—-why even bother if Google will just come along and copy your product then give it away for free (to drive traffic to Google search)?

There is still the potential of innovation in this case from academic researchers, who might not care about commercialization. But such a situation where individuals cannot hope to compete and where research just feeds into titans would be pretty awful.

1: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumping_(pricing_policy)


I think you're neglecting the effect corporate backing can have on encouraging research from people who are less startup-minded and more I-like-knowing-I'll-have-food-on-the-table-minded.


Depends, looking at Google specifically, Spanner is pretty cool, and Google Brain has been a huge source of innovation for a while. There's a thread about BeyondCorp on the frontpage right now. As far as I know, all of those things were not acquisitions.

I personally find the whole "companies don't innovate, they acquire" argument weak at its core. You hear about the acquisitions obviously, and can see them develop into products.

Sure, there are apparently 5 or 6 acquisitions involved with Google Docs, but the existence of an acquisition doesn't mean that the acquiring company wasn't able to innovate, or whatnot, it may mean that they had complimentary technology, or were working toward different goals, or its simply a buyout of a potential competitor.


Buying out competitors is anti-competetive


I made no comment on anything about competitiveness or lack-thereof. This is a non-sequitor.


I know, I am neither directly agreeing or disagreeing with anything you said - no need through the fallacy book at me. I just wanted to point out that the issue is deeper than just "innovate vs. acquire." The extra dimension is that we don't often get to see what the market would come up with in terms of competition because after a certain size, there is no competition.


In large part, those startups would never be profitable on their own, and so rely on the tech giants in order to pay back investors. The investors, in turn, only invest because they believe the startup will be bought out. The viability of the startup thereby relies on the giant.


If you hamstring them, they're less profitable, so they have less to spend on acquisitions, so the expected value of creating an innovative startup decreases.


> These entities don't need to be somehow (gently) "restrained", but as a civilization we need to rethink the power we've ceded to them at a very fundamental level, or we risk growing ever weaker and more dependent on them.

I wholeheartedly agree with you on all the points you made, but I'm a bit weary for this one, especially using the term 'ceded'. Have we really ceded power to Apple/Google/Amazon/Facebook or have they simply 'won' the capitalism game? If they won, do we penalize them for winning? Can we force a breakup of these Tech Titans into independent companies (something akin to the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 [1] or the breakup of Standard oil in 1911 [2]) or would that stifle the amazing innovation these companies put out regularly?

If we have indeed ceded power, then what is our recourse? Legislation? By whom? Many of these companies are arguably working for the same government that is in the best place to enact such regulations, as shown in the Snowden leaks.

I don't know what the best answer is, perhaps we need to wait out a few generations to get policy makers that actually understand what the internet is and the implications of digital monopolies. Perhaps the answer is less pessimistic.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass%E2%80%93Steagall_legisla... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller


This argument is misapplied to tech companies. Replace Google with Exxon or Coca Cola or Boeing and the actual threat is greatly magnified.

The point about cyber attack is a good example - in the real world, it is decidely non-tech companies and government institutions that suffer the most harmful cyber attacks.

Your central point about power is sound however. The reason we should be worried is these companies actually shape how we live in many ways, and we are not in control, or rather nobody is.


This is a great comment. I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions, but I like the argument and I’m impressed it’s being presented dispassionately. It’s tiring to see breathless anti-big company rants or conspiracy theories about dystopian surveillance state involvement. But I find your point about power imbalances to be pretty compelling - both in principle and in your neutral presentation.


I am surprised there has not been an antitrust case against Google and Facebook. Google is definitely abusing the monopoly position it has in search. The claim that any user can switch to Bing by just typing in a different URL is ridiculous.

The remedy that the original article suggest is right on point. The way search systems work these days is by learning from how users interact with them. Google's market share ensures that it will always have access to more tail queries and user's intent while asking them. Building a better search engines than Google is no longer about hiring engineers or investing in data centers, it is about having access to the data that Google has on searches. Just like the DOJ forced Microsoft to document and provide API's that were being used by IE and Office to all software companies, a case today that forces Google to share all the data that it collects on searches would help break its monopoly.


a case today that forces Google to share all the data that it collects on searches would help break its monopoly.

The only thing worse than Google having everyone’s search history is forcing them to reveal everyone’s search history. The data should be destroyed and new data not gathered.

“You googled X on date D therefore we have concluded Y is a preexisting condition and your claim is denied”


Depending on the data, Google anonymizes the data in 30-180 days (most things are ≤34 days, and 180 is reserved for search).


A friendly reminder that there's no such thing as "anonymized data", there's only "anonymized until combined with other data sets".


A textbook example is the AOL search history release [1]. They went to the trouble of wiping user account information but left anonymous (but unique) per-user numeric identifiers. Oops, someone didn't think that one through.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AOL_search_data_leak


How is that an example of one of the failures of anonimization of data? To me it just looks like AOL did a shitty job, not that the concept as a whole is a lost cause.


Most breaches happen because someone "did a shitty job".

The truth is, you're doing a shitty job if you don't recognize anonymization for what it is - essentially trying to have a cake and eat it too. In practice, it has specific constraints that must be met, and I'd judge the difficulty of doing a good job here to be similar to rolling out your own crypto. That is, unless you're a good statistician, you're better off not sharing the data (or not having it in the first place) than releasing it "anonymized".


Disagree. You can anonymize and aggregate data such that any data that could deanonymize would also allow you to fully reconstruct what you're looking at. Then you aren't adding any information.

As an example, a list of Google searches, aggregated at the minute level, is a useful dataset, but it won't tell you anything about my search history unless you already have my search history, in which case you already knew the answer.


To take your example - assume I target you personally, and beyond the list of Google searches, I managed to get hold of the list of times (with minute-or-better precision) you made requests to Google Search (say, I hacked/subpoenaed your ISP). Taken together and if large enough, the two datasets would allow me to build a statistical profile of your possible interests - even though in the original dataset you're bucketed together with lots of people, each time you do the search (second dataset) you're bucketed with different people.

Gaining access to other data - like e.g. your country of residence + aggregated popularity of search terms for each country - would let me refine your statistical profile further.


That would potentially work, but I expect that it would require a dataset of size larger than the average lifespan of a person (2.4 million google searches per minute).


And isn't Googles method of anonymization simply to "blackout" the last octet of each users IP, so in many cases one wouldn't even need much in the way of additional data.


Sounds like incentive to regulate then. That they presently have the data and it's private is worse than it being totally public. If it's acted on now it'll just be by a better connected actor against somebody unaware they can even be acted upon in those ways.


Privacy is an illusion, and measures designed to protect privacy end up protecting the ones that have exclusive access to it.


Two responses.

1. Although I see your point that search queries could be dangerous, Google would never allow such use of search queries. Using search queries from a given person to market them products is one thing, but using it against them is a different beast that would horribly hurt the Google brand. And although one could imagine a court order being used to get a user's history, establishing a pre-existing condition is not enough of a benefit to go through the trouble of getting a court order for search history (and would likely not be granted, given the circumstantial nature of the evidence).

2. There are a hundred reasons to search any given query. If an insurer is using such an insubstantial basis to establish a pre-existing condition, the actual problem is that the insurer has too much market power and can be (for lack of a better word) an asshole without losing customers.


You appear to be replying to a comment without having read or understood any of the context?

The thread is discussing a case in which Google would be forced to release all of this data via court order, so your first bullet doesn't make sense as Google would have no choice in this theoretical scenario.


"2. There are a hundred reasons to search any given query. If an insurer is using such an insubstantial basis to establish a pre-existing condition, the actual problem is that the insurer has too much market power and can be (for lack of a better word) an asshole without losing customers."

So, in other words, acting like a typical US based health insurer before the Affordable Care Act came into law.


> The claim that any user can switch to Bing by just typing in a different URL is ridiculous.

I don't use Google much, so I am not sure what you mean by this. Can you elaborate on what makes switching to another search engine ridiculous?

I might be unaware of what I am missing. Web searches are a pretty low-frequency, low-importance action for me. Thinking now of what I use search engines for, I suspect many of my searches are simply to confirm the domain name of a site I am vaguely familiar with, and any search engine can do that. For me, Amazon's dominion in online sales (something I use routinely) is more ominous than Google's dominion over search and advertising (something that I use so rarely).

Google could disappear tomorrow and I would scarcely notice.

That said, the reason I rarely use Google services is because I don't trust them and don't like their business model. So while I agree conceptually with the notion that we need to encourage alternatives, I disagree with the method to reach that end. I don't think exercise of government power is correct; I feel exercise of consumer choice is more appropriate. As a Netscape/Mozilla user in the late 90s, I felt the same way about Microsoft, and ultimately feel the government's suppression of Microsoft hurt the industry in several ways that are difficult to quantify.


> Web searches are a pretty low-frequency, low-importance action for me.

Web searches are a very high-frequency, high-importance action for me--I do dozens of searches every day--and Google Search, whether for text, images, videos, or physical addresses, is so much more superior to any other search engine in thoroughness and organization, that there is, quite simply, no question about it.


Agree,. What worries me is this talk of doing something against Google will make it so I can not search as easily as I can today.

I do think someone can easily use Bing if they want and it is even easier to type. But I chose to use Google because when I have compared Google is just a lot better. Why should Google be penalized for that?

If people want to use something else then use something else and leave me alone and my choice.


>I don't think exercise of government power is correct; I feel exercise of consumer choice is more appropriate.

The fault with your idea is that consumer choice that organically influences the market will always lag greatly relative to immediate & absolute government regulation. Sometimes, the correction on a monopolistic with consumer choice alone can not be achieved.


While that's true, search is nowhere near the point where it needs government action.


I switched to DuckDuckGo a while ago for all my personal devices/profiles and I have not looked back since. Quality of results is on a par to what I had using google.com. I still use gmail and youtube etc. Just change the settings in your browsers and you're done - takes about 11 seconds.

The barrier to entry for someone like DDG is actually quite low I think - just have a look at how their traffic is growing (https://duckduckgo.com/traffic.html) and they're making a profit while doing it (http://fortune.com/2015/10/09/duckduckgo-profitable/). DDG has proven that you can make a growing, profitable business in search that provides decent results without needing a million AI engineers mining the search data. I don't know what Bing search is like profitability-wise, but I am sure it is doing OK.

I'd be keen to hear why you think that switching to another search engine is ridiculous? I cant think of any reasons why?

I have no data, but I reckon that most users wouldn't even notice/realise if they were using another search engine (of course, the HN readership would notice immediately - we're not representative) , and I also reckon that of those that do about half of those would only realise because the look & feel is mildly different! :-) Based on my experience I really dont think they'd notice due to the quality of the results.

But hey, I guess there are people who have niche queries they'll pull out to prove why DDG/Bing is inferior to Google. I guess some people dont remember what it was like before Google! The results from competitors are good IME.


"I'd be keen to hear why you think that switching to another search engine is ridiculous?"

I think you answered your own question: "I reckon that most users wouldn't even notice/realise if they were using another search engine".

For example, the other night I wanted to watch a movie. I entered the title in the Chrome address bar. Google was automatically used of course (yes it's customizable through a few menus, but for most people that means it's auto Google). The first result had an option to rent the movie. I clicked "Rent". Google Play was used of course. And I gave Google $3.

I don't personally mind this particular case, having long ago made the conscious choice to use Google Play over Apple or Amazon...or...ummm...for renting movies (mostly early Chromecast support). But it's a simple illustration of how Google isn't just a "search engine" that pulls up information you query when you want to surf the information superhighway. It's the automatic background interface for a great number of activities we do in our life. The fact most people probably don't even realize that is exactly one problem.

(And this has solutions of course, but it's one point to keep in mind.)


I appreciate your point, but the same thing happens in DDG? Enter a movie (e.g. I used Jurassic Park) and I have links in more-or-less-the-same-place to iTunes or Amazon. You could have just as easily given your $3 to those services had you used DDG.

I dont see how that DDG's approach is "ridiculous" compared to how Google does it? Seems like the same sort of background interface to doing "stuff" on the internet, just a different URL. Sure Google have got a joined-up ecosystem (just like Amazon & Apple do), but I dont think in this scenario it presents any real benefits to the end user? You pays your money, you sees your dinosaurs.

Sure people need to switch search engines, and sure people probably wont switch, but I dont think people's laziness/unawareness to switch is justification enough to classify Google a monopoly when viable alternatives exist.

It might be better for browsers to provide a randomised-order "search engine choice screen" on installation about what engine to use, rather than just default to something (a bit like what MS had to do with Browsers IIRC). At least that might stop people getting auto opted-in to using to whichever company have the best relationship with the browser developer.


Yeah, I guess I agree with everything you say, really. But since you emphasize asking about the "ridiculous" quality, I'd just propose what's ridiculous (kinda? but too strong) is that switching from Google to DDG is just a matter of changing URLs for most people. Even going to a different search engine URL probably assumes a way more sophisticated mental model of how the web works than most users have. Second, the input box at google.com is just one way to do things through Google, there's also OK Google for example (which is built into many people's only internet devices), and of course the browser address bar.

I do wonder how problematic it is that the fact Google has it's fingers in a steadily increasing amount of stuff---from medicine and cars to music and home management, all centered around capturing and storing an increasing amount of our personal data---isn't as explicit to most people as it ought to be. Personally I don't have an opinion on whether or not Google should be considered a monopoly, though I'm glad other people are considering the issue more seriously than I.


That seems like a weird example. I just searched for the last film I watched - “Hud” - and Google gives me four options to rent the film, one of which is Google and three of which are not. It is hard to see how Google is harming consumer access to films.


Indeed! Google seems to have been doing a good job so far of trying to preempt being called a monopoly by not really abusing their power. (On the consumer services level at least, no opinion here on others.)


I'm trying to use DDG as much as possible. The biggest obstacle for me at this point is muscle memory. I've been typing google.com for so long whenver I need to search for something that breaking that mindless habit has proven difficult :)

For some reason, I didn't have as much trouble shifting from altavista and lycos to Google (did I just date myself?) :D


Every browser made for years just lets you type search terms in the address bar. You never need to go to google.com or duckduckgo.com or anywhere else to search, just set the search engine for the browser. (Not to mention bookmarks were invented in... 1995?)


Bah, my first browser was lynx: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynx_(web_browser) on a dial-up UNIX shell account.

I've set DDG as the default search engine in all of my browsers, but I still mindlessly plug google.com into the address bar anyway.

And also I tend bookmark webpages and then forget that I've done so - which means I end up searching for them again anyway.

I know, I have a problem. :)


Saying that there haven't been any antitrust cases against Google and Facebook is simply inaccurate. Google got popped with a 2.4 billion euro antitrust fine for abusing their search monopoly just last summer (example source: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jun/27/google-brac...).


Yes, but there have not been any in the US. (This is likely because of the amount of money Google 'invests' in politicians.)

Note that the EU case is only the first of three EU antitrust cases against Google. They're also about to get hit with (rumored to be even larger) fines for abuses with Android and AdSense.


What about the other way around? Much of Google is US-gov't-funded


> The claim that any user can switch to Bing by just typing in a different URL is ridiculous.

It's not though; people have a choice in this case, not so when it comes to e.g. ISPs or cell phone operators.


And more people seem [0] to be exercising that choice.

[0]https://duckduckgo.com/traffic.html


Well, users can easily switch, to an extent (Google increasingly ties its services together, meaning you lose out if you use other Google products but not search).

But, if you depend on incoming Google traffic, you can't "switch." It is this side of the equation where Google's search dominance is troubling. That, and ads.


Ever pick up a tourist map? It's a pay to play list of recommendations.


This implies that a monopoly is bad.

The government realizes how powerful Google's monopoly is. It's a monopoly on information. And that implies a monopoly on the rest of the world – at least, the part of it that uses Google.

Any litigation would be spearheaded by the government. As long as Google plays ball with the backroom deals, they have nothing to worry about. If the NSA couldn't tap into the data behind their backs, they'll do it clandestinely but with Google's knowledge.

This isn't as far fetched as it sounds. You're right that Google faces a monopoly breakup. But that gives the government all kinds of leverage into their treasure trove of human interaction.


> I am surprised there has not been an antitrust case against Google and Facebook. Google is definitely abusing the monopoly position it has in search. The claim that any user can switch to Bing by just typing in a different URL is ridiculous.

Can you point to a clear case of consumer harm?

Antitrust doesn't (or, at least, shouldn't) exist to protect companies, but consumers. Ad prices have gone down, service prices have gone down, product prices have gone down.


The executive branch has chosen to exercise its anti-trust powers against monopoly (which is often reduced to consumer harm) a bit over the last few decades. They’ve applied their powers barely at all to monopsony during the same time period, but I don’t think there’s nearly as broad agreement as you imply that those powers shouldn’t be applied to monopsony.


> The executive branch has chosen to exercise its anti-trust powers against monopoly (which is often reduced to consumer harm)

Those two aren't necessarily related. From an economic (and therefore a regulator's) perspective, a monopoly means being able to extract monopolist prices from the market. That hasn't happened in the tech industry.

The prices that matter (ad prices) have been going down dramatically over the years, with plenty of competition. The issue comes up every year at Google's and Facebook's earning calls.

There is no economic monopoly. There could potentially be one in the layman's use of the word and in specific markets.

This is similar to looking at Coke. There are markets (Brazil, for example) where Coke controls >95% of the cola market. Some would say it is a monopoly, but they are missing the point that the cola market doesn't exist in isolation, as it competes with the overall soda market, water, alcoholic beverages, and even the guy on the traffic light selling bags of orange.


Here's a good book on the subject that recently came out: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N4VV7B6/ref=as_li_tl?ie...

And here is a good podcast between the book's author and a former lawyer: https://www.artofmanliness.com/2018/01/18/world-without-mind...

The issue about monopolies goes back to Robert Bork: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bork

Also, try using DuckDuckGo or Startpage:

https://www.startpage.com/eng/?

https://duckduckgo.com/


I agree and that might soon change. Missouri’s attorney general has launched a probe into Google. Others might follow suit soon. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/11/conservative-bac...


> a case today that forces Google to share all the data that it collects on searches would help break its monopoly.

I'd rather see legislation against private entities aggregating that information. Honestly, Google's search has been getting worse for me as they optimize towards a more general audience.


Curious why it is ridiculous to sugest that you can just type bing.com instead of google.com?

It is two characters less? Not saying it is or is not but more curious the rational for your thinking?

It is not like Google blocks MS as far as I am aware from crawling their properties and YouTube search on Bing is excellent.


> a case today that forces Google to share all the data that it collects on searches would help break its monopoly.

Not just no, but absolutely hell no. Currently, I can choose or not choose to agree to Google's policies or use or not use their services, but essentially open-sourcing their dataset where it can be used by literally anyone? I don't trust Google a lot, but I trust them far more than <insert random company I've never heard of.>


And that makes Google noticeably worse then it used to be for many queries.


Right, so how much of a moat is that data really?


> The claim that any user can switch to Bing by just typing in a different URL is ridiculous.

I've had this exact argument here on HN in the past many times https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15045653

> It takes me all of 10 seconds to type duckduckgo.com, and maybe 30 to switch default search engines for the browser.

I personally think this monopoly is way more evil and insidious that ISP monopoly. It should bother us way more than net neutrality but for some reason it doesn't. I suspect because google and co are considered to be on "our side" and would be generally good for society.


> Regulators could oblige platform firms to make anonymised bulk data available to competitors, in return for a fee, a bit like the compulsory licensing of a patent. Such data-sharing requirements could be calibrated to firms’ size: the bigger platforms are, the more they have to share. These mechanisms would turn data from something titans hoard, to suppress competition, into something users share, to foster innovation.

This is a terrible idea, and would be massively destructive of user privacy. "Anonymized" data can very often be de-anonymized.

Maybe I'm dumb, but I actually trust a fair amount Google with my less sensitive data. Google is secretive, and a bit paranoid, and they don't like to share. Data goes in, but historically, not much has come out.

I do not, however, trust Facebook with my data. And that's the point: Just because I've looked at the tradeoffs and decided to share certain data with Google, I don't want the government ordering Google to share it with other companies. Ditto for LinkedIn: I'm happy to give them a resume, but I don't necessary want to share that with scrapers who are repurposing the data.


I'm not convinced there's a problem here that needs to be solved.

"The dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon is bad for consumers and competition" ... really??

- Amazon provides good products and services at good prices and that's why they're successful. Some things are cheaper locally, some things aren't. I buy loads of stuff from Amazon and don't want that to change.

- Google, privacy is a concern, but their search engine is extremely useful, and gmail, and chrome, etc. I rely on Chrome, and the search engine, as long as they're the best at what they do I'm happy to continue using them.

- Facebook, is still the most widely used (and that makes it the best) social network. I think Facebook is going to die a natural death - especially when people realize how difficult it is to actually delete their content. It's still the easiest way to run a group, as most people are already on Facebook. I run a local residents group on Facebook and am happy to continue using Facebook for that. I don't use it for personal stuff anymore because everyone's too political, the risk isn't worth the reward. My actual friends use a WhatsApp group to chat with each other, that's a good service I want to keep using. Facebook doesn't belong in the same list as Amazon and Google - because tbh Facebook could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn't affect very much at all.


"The dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon is bad for consumers and competition" ... really??

Yes, really.

The existence of monopoly or significantly market-dominating providers is definitionally a failure of competition.

I suppose you could argue about whether or not a competitive market is good, but I'm pretty sure it is.


I reacted more to the word 'consumers' than 'competition' as the competition argument comes back around to what's best for consumers anyway.

So I put my consumer hat on and pondered what would I rather have: - The current situation - Intervention

And I concluded I quite like the current situation, these companies provide meaningful benefits to me.

If I put my tin foil hat on, it seems quite obvious that 'bad for consumers' is what someone wants you to think, but it isn't entirely true.


Unfortunately, you may be happy with Amazon, but there's loads of examples of where this is going wrong for consumers. From issues with counterfit products (see the post recently about the guy who unknowingly was "charged" with import fraud and denied privileged flight status due to an Amazon order), to them taking advantage of the fact that people assume they're the cheapest price (they aren't always), to "prime shipping" becoming more and more of a thing you can't depend on (late shipments ... all the time).

Maybe you live in an area that Amazon gives higher priority to, maybe you live closer to a shipping center than I do, maybe the things you tend to order tend to be highly stocked in their warehouses ... I don't know, but the more time passes, the more Amazon frustrates me personally as a consumer, and others as well based on articles being written and social media chatter; which is frustrating, because the average national retail store is terrible (and they already killed all the mom n pop stores), and having to maintain accounts on lots of smaller online retailers is a pain (not to mention lax security can lead to stolen credit cards, etc). So obviously, in some ways, I agree with you because Amazon does provide benefits ... they just need to not be the only viable player in the online space.


>If I put my tin foil hat on, it seems quite obvious that 'bad for consumers' is what someone wants you to think, but it isn't entirely true.

Is putting your tinfoil hat on really a good way to get to the truth of any subject?

And you've concluded that because you prefer the current situation the situation faced by society or consumers is the same. And that's really just your opinion.

My opinion, for example, is that Amazon has obviously operated maliciously in numerous examples. Not calling 911 when their employee was suffering from the heat of its facility, leading to his death. Encouraging individuals to sell (generate markets) on the Amazon network then under-cutting or pushing out that small seller when there's revenue to be earned instead by Amazon. Encouraging waste and flippant purchases that are fulfilled in an inefficient and non-evironmentally friendly manner.

Amazon is Walmart, online. And neither organizations present long-term benefits to society, in my opinion.


What's best for consumers is having a variety of competitive choices: in the short term a monopolist can offer the 'one true best option', but over time they (like all companies) will stop acting competitively and then consumers will be harmed by the lack of other options.

That's why it is bad for consumers when monopolists emerge: during the emergence they likely do benefit, but it can take decades for a market to recover once the monopolist stops being competitive.


We're not to the point of nobody being able to compete with Amazon, though. Amazon is winning but other companies still exist and are fighting, so Amazon can't just raise prices arbitrarily and expect customers to not look elsewhere. Amazon has only benefited consumers so far.


Amazon is exterminating local businesses en masse and making trade deficits worse. People should reason past the end of their nose. Low prices aren't the only good in the universe; your money is now going out of your community to god knows where. You and your neighbors are getting poorer and poorer the more you consume and the less you produce.


This is the same argument against Walmart [1], and yet they continue to flourish too. You can argue all you want about how people should buy locally, support mom-and-pop stores, and keep their money in their community, but WAIT IS THAT A $80 FLAT PANEL HDTV?? At the end of the day the vast majority of people are going to go with the cheapest option.

1: (which, by the way, is huge and competes with Amazon, so I'm not sure where this "Amazon has no competition" meme comes from)


Yeah, I grew up in the midwest and I know the Walmart effect. I also see the midwest sucked dry by these and other stores. Track the money. It's not a net in-flow to the local community, even if you count externalities. Big corporations have hollowed out America. "It's economics". Indeed.


I also pine for the good ol' days of mom and pop stores being the primary retailers in the world, but the genie is out of the bottle and consumers have shown that they prefer the convenience and affordability of online shopping. Amazon has been happy to provide that thus far.

The argument I was responding to said Amazon is a monopoly that hurts consumers. I still contend that A) it's not a monopoly and isn't necessarily destined to be one, and B) it has not hurt consumers. Your argument is more about the social and economic implications of big stores in general putting mom and pops out of business, which is a whole different issue and involves more than just Amazon.


monopoly of what? their own product? so?

I can use any search engine I know about. how about just force every browser to present a random list of search engines for the user to choose and lock in. Heck we can make it round robin three of them.

Facebook is a monopoly of what? Facebook. Twitter is a monopoly of what? Twitter. How do you share a website with competitors?

amazon gets competition but only for those who know to shop elsewhere or refuse to shop amazon. heck google rarely gives me an amazon result for shopping. wal mart competes with amazon but there are those who will never shop there, even target competes but again, same thing.


Your third point is precisely why Facebook is a problem. For a person to be an active member of your community group, that person must join Facebook. To opt out of Facebook entirely becomes impractical.


True, it's the only reason I'm still using Facebook, but any alternative service would also require everyone to register an account. There is a strong competitor called Nextdoor but the privacy is even more concerning because they require your address and they share it by default (yes really!).


Seriously, all three of these could disappear tomorrow and the world is not coming to an end.

Amazon has robust competition both online and offline and I'm finding myself more often than not using better alternatives.

Google's services are high quality but most have decent drop-in replacements. For example, I recently moved all my E-mail off of Gmail and it was hassle-free. So far the most difficult part has been getting people to start using my new address.

Facebook I admittedly don't understand at all. Maybe I'm too old. I don't use it or even see a shred of value in it. To me it's an entirely optional service, and if it were to disappear overnight I literally would not notice.


With Google, I'm not sure; it gives good search results and experience, so I keep using it. If there's an alternative that does it better I might switch, eventually.

With Amazon it's a bit more malicious, in that they use their vast revenue and whatnot to force their prices below what any competitor could do, thus forcing them out of business.

Then again I'm sure that Google's acqui-hired any search start-up that might've become a competitor eventually.


How would it be considered malice to use your own revenue to sell things cheaper, while maintaining service and product listing quality. Are there any legal or ethical lines being crossed?


Running a few product lines at a loss is a classic way for a large company to put competitors out of business, in general terms. Once the competition is gone there maybe an opportunity for the remaining company to raise prices quite a lot.


> but their search engine is extremely useful

In some ways yes, but google's search and advertising monetization algorithms have a direct impact on the success of anything that depends on search ranking or ad monetization.


I think Google Search is going to eventually become a regulated public utility, and we can look to the telecom industry for an example of how that will go down.

The thing that comes to mind is the fact that Google refuses to allow API access to searching. They used to, with results limited to just five bad results, but quietly removed even that when they released a new tool and discontinued the old one.

It struck me at the time that I learned this, as I figured that Google was so large, that search would become like a free public utility that they ran. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that they don't, but other similar adventures got me to conclude that the API revolution is still in it's barest infancy.

But Google instead goes to enormous lengths to protect Search. I might make it a weekend project some day to figure out just what the current state of Google scraping is, that cat and mouse game probably has a fascinating history.

This will probably become a point of debate 20 years down the road when antitrust cases on tech giants finally become politically feasible.


Do you actually want it to be a free public utility? In terms of reliability, Google search currently has a lot more 9s than any utility I know of (roads, power, water, internet service). Utility companies are not really known for innovation as much as stagnation, unless you count innovative new ways to extract rent.

To me the reason Google dominates search is not that it's loads better than the competition but because it's a little bit better, and there's minimal cost of switching (from Bing to Google, say).


A gentle contradiction in the article: "a full-scale break-up would cripple the platforms’ economies of scale"

but later:

"Trustbusters should scrutinise mergers to gauge whether a deal is likely to neutralise a potential long-term threat"

There also seems to be plenty of middle ground there. Like forcing a sell-off of Waze and Instagram without breaking up the whole parent company.


We CAN break them up. Facebook can be broken up into a federated network. Split Google into YouTube, Hangouts, Cloud, and The Rest. Force any integrations between these to be done with open protocols anyone can implement.


Search and ads are the big ones. And you can't really split any part of the company off from ads because that's revenue.

So if you're going to split Google, the only way I can see it working is a bilateral (or multilateral) split, like the AT&T breakup into the Baby Bells. Each part would get search and ads and maybe the existing YouTube corpus, ???

Discussion question: How did the AT&T breakup work out in the long run? (Genuinely curious, not trying to be snarky.)


In the long run, tech changed the landscape so much that the breakup was ultimately a success. I'm skeptical that cell phones would be as ubiquitous and cheap as they are if it didn't. Long distance calling (a big deal back then) was killed by tech and competition at the same time.


Other things like answering machines probably would not have happened, too. I wasn't around back then but as I understand it you were only allowed to connect Ma Bell's telephones to your telephone line and Bell's goons would break in and rip out unapproved telephone equipment.


Third party devices were "legalized" by the Carterfone decision in the 1950s, long before the breakup.

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/12/carterfone-40-ye...


> can't really split any part of the company off from ads because that's revenue

Sure you can, but in a different way: tax ads.


In your example, The Rest would still be the vast majority of the company.


Apple is a bit of a herring here.

Apple had a very unusual strategy of (a) not pursuing market share and (b) not building moats. This was part of their quirkiness as a tech giant. The truth is that they are far more exposed to competitive pressures, and their own future performance than others.

IE, the ipod had little or no moat. OSX never had 10% market share. iOS has tsomewhat of a platform moat, but they left the high volume segment of the market to Google. They have some network-effect-moats like facetime built in, but it doesn't add up to a persistent dominance. Facetime still needs to be better than whatsapp and skype on iphones to maintain popularity.

In all their major product lines, the current competition could really hurt them if Apple underperform for one or two generations. iOS, OSX, itunes...

Few other companies think like this. IE maintained dominance (despite antitrust) for a long time.It wasn't untill Firefox & Chrome broke their monopoly that browsers/www started advancing again.

They survived bad operating systems, that no one wanted (Vista), extending XP by 5+ years past its use by date.

Amazon dominate online selling. They had a patent on remembering your CC number, a mf patent! ...just to turn past market share into future market share. The infrastructure services are platforms, with lock in.

Google is all about 100% market share, all about lock in. All about accumulating data so that they have

FB has all the people and all the sites (FB tracking pixel). They have the best ad-targetting platorm for this reason. All the people regsitered. Detailed data on their FB dataset. Vast off-platform collected from advertiser sites (all the advertisers).

I agree that part of the FB problem is that they aren't treated like news media, and are exempt from journalistic norms. But, this is also a red herring. Their monopoly is a problem regardless.

Many of their acquisitions are defensive, buying potential competition.

Antitrust needs a total re-build from the ground up. It's not about price fixing anymore. It's about taking up all the space so that no one else can play.

I don't think that the standards of antitrust are any good right now. You have to prve price fixing, unfair competition or some other hard to prove and potentially irelevant activities. I think antitrust has to be preventive.

It needs to make sure there is ample room in a market for innovation, and/or regulate all the giants by default. Got a dataset that includes all the people in a country? Maybe that should be a public dataset.


Apple would only be a red herring if the article in question was talking in any way about Apple! It’s not, it’s subtitle specifies it’s referring to Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

In fact, Apple is mentioned only once in the article, in a sentence saying “Apple is to be admired for making things people want to buy”.

Pedantry about RTFA aside, I generally agree with your points, Apple has chosen a business model that makes it relatively unlikely to receive serious anti-trust scrutiny!


I'm not sure I agree with you about Apple not building moats. Many services that Apple offers today, mostly under the iCloud/iTunes umbrella, are nontransferable. Think app/music purchases, settings, access to services such as iMessage and FaceTime, etc. I'm saying this as someone almost completely invested in Apple's ecosystem.


How exactly would you break up Facebook or Googles "monopolies"? Force a certain percent of the population to use competitors services?


I mostly agree with the points leading up to the suggestion of mandatory data sharing. I'm still mulling that over.

But I do agree that just breaking up Google, for example, wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. Of all the tech giants, I think Google is still doing the most good in terms of investing in innovation. Their research teams are varied and doing the fantastic.

Disclaimer: I don't work there and forewent an offer to network my way in.


I'm still surprised that no one has proposed a protocol to replace Facebook / Twitter. If a real time RSS system existed then both of those companies don't really need to exist. In fact, I think you could mock up a service just using SMTP that would work exactly as both those companies do today.


The problem is you're trying to solve a problem that most Facebook users don't care about. The hurdles to replacing Facebook or Twitter aren't technical, they are social. The killer feature of any social network is people using it.


The darn network effects keep people on the existing services and off of new ones. There have been protocols, like https://matrix.org/ (newer) and https://xmpp.org/ (older) .

If Facebook and Twitter were forced to interoperate with any of these other protocols then you could have a gradual migration. That's why you sure won't see that happen!


> I'm still surprised that no one has proposed a protocol to replace Facebook / Twitter.

Isn't that what WebSub[0] (formerly PubSubHubbub) is for?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebSub



The tech to do what Facebook does (more or less) is easy. The issue is with the network. It's why most of the "Facebook competitors" died. What good is having the ability to receive feeds like that if no one I'm interested is broadcasting?


Ben Thompson has some awesome writing on tech titans, and their role in the economy. Here's some definitions: https://stratechery.com/2017/defining-aggregators/ and here's an some writing on why they are not necessarily bad monopolies: https://stratechery.com/2015/aggregation-theory/.


We're all gonna look back at this in 15 years with a good laugh at our naivety. New paradigms will emerge, and with them new competitors we can't even imagine today. Google and Facebook are one technical/cultural shift away from irrelevancy. Amazon is much closer to a traditional monopolist and will perhaps require regulatory intervention.

I literally had this same conversation about Microsoft and Yahoo in 2000. Remember when we all thought that George W Bush was the worst possible president imaginable? Yeah, those were good times . . .


I am surprised my esteemed colleagues haven't jumped on

> Immunity to content liability must go, too.

This would be quite a hurdle to quite a few sites if it applied across the board. To begin with, this site. Reddit. Etc.


On the one hand, definitely worrisome when taking into account the alternative sites. On the other, it's in a paragraph about legal exceptions, so I'm wondering if the article's saying that Facebook and such get more people looking the other way, and that any smaller competitors would get jumped on disproportionally; just looking at music, YouTube doesn't seem to be suffering too greatly from everyone uploading recordings, while I can easily see a small upstart getting sued into oblivion for a fraction of the infringement. Maybe some of that is that they can point to their algorithms as mitigation, but, A, that gets into proprietary secrets that would be key to even existing clashing with anti-trust laws, and B, there's still plenty of eight-year-old music videos that they somehow haven't gotten around to checking.


Yeah, that really worries me. OTOH, it's probably easier for a small company to police its users than a very very large one, so maybe it'd actually be an advantage for smaller competitors?

I think that the real answer is to mandate open protocols. The government has a real role in determining weights & measures used in trade (which it's rather shamefully ignored: I should be able to order a small, medium or large coffee or pizza anywhere in the country and get the exact same size); that same role could be legitimately used to describe exactly the right (though not the sole) formats which must be supported by a service.

E.g., the State could mandate that Facebook provide users a well-supported way to publish to or read from RSS, or for Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, Amazon Prime & iTunes to share music.

There is a danger there, in that it's not exactly well-defined 'share music' means (are those services even comparable? what about some future service with a revolutionary new model?), but I think that it should be doable.


If people are interested in tech monopolies, innovation, and government, here are some great books:

- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by John Gertner: A running theme is how AT&T was motivated to "give back" to the country to avoid anti-monopoly action by the government. I take today's talk about Google/Facebook/Apple/Amazon to be a negotiating tactic to motivate them to act similarly, although I wouldn't be surprised to see real government involvement either.

- The Chip by T. R. Reid: the invention of the integrated circuit near-simultaneously by two different people/companies.

- Where Wizards Stay up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon: the origins of ARPANET at BBN.

Two other closely-related themes in these books are:

- Patents (a limited monopoly), and how the patents for both transistors and integrated circuits were licensed very freely, allowing much faster innovation.

- Government spending, e.g. how the space race and arms buildup paid for the early years of IC development before they were commercially competitive with just wiring up lots of components.

. . .

OT, I found all these books more interesting than The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Although it won a Pulitzer, it never felt like any of it "mattered" in the same way. (I had never heard of the Data General Eclipse.) It just seemed like another story of engineers killing themselves with overwork.


"Apple is to be admired as the world’s most valuable listed company for the simple reason that it makes things people want to buy, even while facing fierce competition."

Really? Apple gets a clean chit for everything?

I live in the Linux world, can the BSD (including all the variants) contributors / maintainers enlighten if Apple is contributing anything back?

(NB: I am aware of what the BSD license allows. I'm mostly interested about Apple's behaviour from the "being a good citizen" POV.)


I posted a few minutes ago about how chaotic privacy-related public policy is around the world. http://www.dbms2.com/2013/07/08/privacy-data-use-gap-theory/ This article is another wrinkle yet.


I like Amazon because it proves that coordinated economy can work pretty well nowadays. We need to nationalize it. :)


I think the first country to do this will be an interesting thing to watch, particularly as older models for society appear to be increasingly dysfunctional.


Give Bezos a second. He'll become a lunatic in due time, they all do.


To be fair, he is already a lunatic.


monopoly analysis feels outdated.

most government policies are rightly evaluated on how they impact society overall, not a single issue group (SIG). for instance, it benefits society overall to tax cigarettes even though it harms employees and companies related to the tobacco industry.

why not view monopolies with the same societal lens?

for argument's sake, assume google does have a monopoly position in search and abuses it. the resulting cash flows enabled self-driving cars, free worldwide communication, and cheaper smartphones.

so google hurt search but helped other industries, increasing competition in automobiles, communication, and smartphones -- all of which are larger industries. is this better or worse for society?

understanding how tech should help society is a complex and critical issue, but the pursuit of truth requires a balanced, dispassionate analysis from the perspective of society, not one SIG.


If they are smart, they will do some self regulation to preempt the government from coming in. Giving more transparency and empowerment to the users, and explaining a little more what they are doing, and why they are doing it, would go a long way.


> Apple is to be admired as the world’s most valuable listed company for the simple reason that it makes things people want to buy, even while facing fierce competition.

Not sure if I completely agree that Apple's an angel in this case.


Part of their motivation to maximize costs is to minimize tax exposure.

Since 2008 Walmart has paid $64B in corporate income tax, while Amazon has paid $1.4B.

(Source: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=97664&p=irol-sec)

Amazon is taking NYC's lunch money - New York City has the power to stop Amazon and to restore middle-class equilibrium.

(Source: http://www.adamtownsend.me/amazon-nyc/)

Jean-Claude Juncker and Luxembourg's exclusive relationship granted Amazon illegal tax evasion.

(source: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-3701_en.htm)

Only 13 percent of Amazon’s profits went to federal, state, local and foreign taxes from 2007 through 2015, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

For the sake of comparison, that’s about half the average amount S&P 500 companies paid over same period.

Amazon paid just a 9.3 percent effective federal income tax between 2008 and 2012.

Source: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/jul/...

Amazon will unemploy millions of people.

Source: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/amazon-is-going-to-kill-mo...

"Since 2008 Walmart has paid $64B in corporate income tax, while Amazon has paid $1.4B. This is despite the fact that, in the last 24 months, Amazon has added the value of Walmart to its market cap. The most uncomfortable question in business, in my view, is how do we pay our soldiers, firefighters, and teachers if a firm can ascend to $460B in value (#5 in the world) without paying any meaningful corporate taxes." - Professor Scott Galloway

Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-09-19/why-wal-m...


Comparing tax paid to market cap is disingenuous at best - I was surprised Bloomberg would print that, but they then go on to explain it in the article.


You can't, the US is too dysfunctional and corrupt. Current administration has realised this and instead of aiming high opts to go low.

The EU struggles in vain to get their tech sector off the ground and China is doing their own thing.


Easy: cut their government - bodyguard


Ugh, The Economist.

> However, the barriers to entry are rising.

Largely irrelevant. Antritrust doesn't exist to protect you from competition. It exists to protect you from unfair practices resulting in market dominance (typically monopolies). There's a difference.

> If this trend runs its course, consumers will suffer as the tech industry becomes less vibrant

Not every surface is a slipper slope.

More to the point, we're now talking about what might happen rather than what is happening?

> Less money will go into startups

Absolutely no evidence of that yet. In fact I'd argue there's still too much sloshing around the tech industry. But that's fine. If "sophisticatd" investors want to lose their collective shirts on pets.com or whatever, go for it.

> The European Commission has accused Google of using control of Android, its mobile operating system, to give its own apps a leg up.

I've never understood the complaints about Android for two reasons:

1. Consumers have other options (mainly iOS); and

2. Apple isn't held to the same standard. The only reason Google seems to be is that they let third-party manufacturers use their stuff at all. Apple doesn't. So Google gets raked over the anti-competitive coals? WTF?

It's also worth nothing that Android consists of two principal parts:

1. The open source part, which anyone can do anything with (license permitting); and

2. The Google apps and Android trademark, which come with constraints.

Amazon has gone the route of using (1) for their Fire line. Samsung is in camp (2). The point here is you don't have to use (2). People are capable of writing their own apps. Well, let me clarify. They should be but they aren't. Samsung apps in particular are terrible.

That's not Google's fault. That's Samsung's.

> Facebook keeps buying firms which could one day lure users away

Isn't this a sign that their alleged market dominance is fragile?

Honestly, this whole piece seems like a giant FUD exercise in "What if..."


> Antritrust doesn't exist to protect you from competition.

Depends on which antitrust you are talking about. European regulators are generally interested in keeping the market competitive. In the US they give bigger priority to effect on the end user. So in US a single monopoly which does not hike prices is fine whereas in the EU it is not.

This is also why Google was hit in the US over Android and search (they stifled the competition, while giving arguably better experience to the users) and Apple was hit in the US over e-books (they hiked the prices while having a puny market share).

Problem with Android in EU is mostly that without Google services it is not particularly useful as the alternatives are pretty bad. Google Maps has only a few very local competitors for example, DDG local search is pretty terrible and so on.


"Consumers have other options (mainly iOS)"

Two or three competitors in a space does not a robust market make. For one thing, it is very easy to create side-channels of collusion between the competitors. Just as one example closer to everyday life, think about how easy it is for two people to share information in bridge or spades (the card games) without overt communication. I guarantee that side-channel collusion is happening between executives any time the number of players has gotten small enough.

How many times have regulatory agencies used the existence of only two networking/telecom providers in an area as a basis for deciding that a market has sufficient competition to allow another merger to go through? We can see the adverse effects of the lack of competition in the terrible customer service and product quality in that industry.

Why can't we see it in our own?


There used to be a blog titled "Oligopoly Watch" (looks like it's dead now) where they talked about two or more groups of companies dominating various market segments. So yeah, you can have way more than two companies indirectly colluding to fix prices and competition.

I don't know if this is the greatest link, but here's a list of some current oligopolies: https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/121514/what-are-som...


For Google you could separate the search index from the rest of the company, start regulating it as a public utility and force them to open up its APIs to startups.

At this point it's a little hard to argue that a plucky young startup can come along and build a competing index at the same scale. The amount of power alone needed to maintain it is staggering.


Regulating would only diminish its QoS, methinks. Algorithms improve at such fast scale that no one person has complete knowledge about it. Regulating it may drive the regulators mad.


Are you arguing that setting up QoS metrics for a search engine index is intrinsically hard in the way that monitoring the safe running of a nuclear power plant or an air traffic control system is not?

I think maintaining a search index is intrinsically hard - much like maintaining a nuclear power plant. I don't think monitoring a search index is though.

I'm also skeptical of the notion that the engineering of the search index has changed fundamentally in the last 5 years. Realistically Google is not under much competitive pressure any more.


So, we get a prescription article from the industry that tech has struck the hardest: print journalism. And their prescription? Regulation!

Not much better than placebo if you ask me. US government is so venal. Only reason Europe is on the war path is that the offenders aren't European companies. With the amount of cash the big 4/5/6 have on hand, they'll eventually neuter and/or bypass the European regulators as well.

I don't know about Amazon, but with the amount of compute power lying around today, a lot of what Google and Facebook do could probably done just as well--if not better--through a distributed model. Sometimes I wonder if NAT and all of the extraneous junk in IPv6 were just the incumbents' way of salting the ground?




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