How do you tame the tech giants now that they control the infrastructure of society? | John naughton


Pardor me for a moment while I shed a few crocodile tears. The immediate cause of that heartbreak is the news that Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s revenues are down about $ 9.85 billion in the second half of this year. To put that in context, as of this writing, the market valuations of the top three of these behemoths are $ 86.9 billion, $ 930.36 billion, and $ 44.07 billion, respectively. YouTube is more difficult to estimate because it is part of Alphabet, its holding company, but given that it is valued at $ 1.93 billion (or $ 1 trillion), we can safely assume that the decline in YouTube’s income was, as the engineers say, “in the noise”.

And yet, all of these outfits were complaining loudly about the injustice done to them by one of their peers – Apple. Why is that ? Well, in April, the iPhone maker introduced its app tracking transparency policy through a tweak to its mobile operating system, which required iPhone apps to ask permission before tracking user behavior to Offer them personalized advertising.

As you might expect, most users declined to be tracked, meaning those who had hoped to target them found themselves floundering. After all, the supposed USP of surveillance capitalism is that it allows advertisers to direct messages to people who might be willing to receive them. So after Apple changed iOS, a lot of them moved on to advertising on Android and – this is really delicious – Apple’s own growing advertising business!

While the sound of grinding bumps is music to any columnist’s ears, there is, however, a sobering thought that emanates from this little farce. It is that it also provides a living illustration of the exercise of corporate power in the digital age. Suddenly (or in any case a modification of the operating system code), Apple had managed to withdraw nearly $ 10 billion in revenue from four of its fellow technology giants. It was the exercise of tremendous power.

The great unresolved problem of our time is how to manage – and, if necessary, curb – the inexplicable power of these giants. The first step on this path is to come to a collective understanding of the kind of power they actually wield. And for that, we need a taxonomy. Earlier, political theorist Steven Lukes proposed one. There were, he said, three types of power: the ability to compel people to do what they don’t want to do, the ability to stop them from doing what they want to do, and the ability to shape their way of thinking. The latter was useful in addressing the power of influential media owners (Rupert Murdoch, for example) in the old media ecosystem. But while this still applies in some ways to social media, it’s less useful for the networked ecosystem we inhabit now; we need another category.

The “power of the platform” is one possibility. The tech giants all have it to a greater or lesser degree. In the case of Apple, for example, it owns and controls two important platforms – that is, software systems on which other agents can create businesses: these are the operating systems on which its devices work and its app store, which decides which apps are allowed on Apple. devices. Google has several platforms: a search engine and its associated advertising market, the Android mobile operating system, YouTube, and Google cloud services. Facebook (whose holding company is now renamed Meta) also owns several – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; Twitter owns, uh, Twitter; Amazon owns its marketplace and cloud services; and Microsoft owns the Windows / Office platform and a rapidly growing cloud service, Azure.

The difficulty is that there is no single regulatory tool to control the abuse of power of the platform. In the case of Apple, for example, there are good arguments for considering that the change to its mobile operating system that has so baffled Snap & Co was legitimate: it offered users the choice of whether they wanted to be followed or not and they decided they didn’t. But with its app store, there are reasons to view its mandatory 30% levy on app revenue as a monopoly price hike or rent seeking.

For democracies, however, the most difficult questions about the power of platforms arise when they are part of the critical infrastructure of society. As social media platforms have become key parts of the public sphere on which democracy depends, their power to include or exclude voices has taken on new meaning. Just think of what happened when Trump was suddenly banned from Facebook and Twitter, but also remember that the same power to exclude or ‘de-platform’ could be deployed against voices that we approve of. . And there is no proper appeal process.

Then there’s Amazon, which is really part of the critical infrastructure of many democracies, as we saw during the pandemic. It’s not just about home deliveries either, but how states work, as recent revelations about UK security services’ dependence on Amazon cloud services have shown. Once upon a time, the first thing the revolutionary putschists had to do to take power was to gain control of the television channels. Next time, they’ll just have to nationalize Amazon and declare mission accomplished.

What i read

New frontiers
Hey, Facebook I did a metaverse 27 years ago is a nice essay by Ethan Zuckerman in the Atlantic about his attempt to build a metaverse and what Facebook’s offer to create one means.

Hour H
Historian Jill Lepore New Yorker review / essay, The Next Cyberattack Is Already Underway, is on Nicole Pelroth’s book on the Cyber ​​Arms Race.

History boys
Much of what you’ve heard about Carter and Reagan is wrong is a really interesting post by Noah Smith on his Substack blog that debunks the traditional narrative about former US presidents.


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