Beware monopoly, attendees heard at last week’s Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. You may have a very specific complaint — the fact Canada has just one major bookseller, or just two major beer-makers, or three (soon to be two) telecommunication providers — but never lose sight of the fact that the root of these problems lies in a system that has spawned and sustained these monopolies.
Science fiction author and technology law gadfly Cory Doctorow made this point repeatedly as the keynote speaker at this event, where the Canadian Internet domain management body elected its new board. His presentation was billed as an examination of how our on-line lives are threatened by surveillance capitalism, but he boiled that threat down to causes that are much older and more familiar than digital innovations.
“When we criticize technology, it’s natural to want to focus on what the technology does,” he explained. “But it’s a lot more important to focus on who the technology does it for, and who it does it to.”
As a pointed reminder that if you are not a paying customer, you are probably some other paying customer’s product, Doctorow considered how Facebook or Google were permitted to base their business models on selling our personal information to advertisers. He traced the origins of this behaviour to the rise of free-market neo-liberalism in the 1980s, which transformed the legal standards defining a company’s abusive practices. More specifically, the definition of a firm’s “harmful dominance” in the market was subjected to a new set of complex economic models, which paved the way for significant corporate concentration in a number of sectors.
The result has been the emergence of multi-national behemoths with revenue streams and political clout that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And while their capabilities are presented as just desserts for skillful innovation, Doctorow argues the success of these enterprises has actually been fostered by a permissive regime that allows them to keep buying other innovators and eliminating potential competitors.
“Remember, Mark Zuckerberg woke up in a cold sweat a little over a decade ago, and sent an extremely ill-advised e-mail to his CFO, saying ‘we must buy Instagram, because it is better to buy than compete, and our users are leaving our platform because they like Instagram better’,” he said.
“Clearly someone from his legal office called him," Doctorow continued, "because an hour later he sent an e-mail to that same CFO, saying ‘for avoidance of doubt, I absolutely didn’t mean it’s better to buy than compete. We’re really into competing, we have the best product.’ I think that second e-mail is a pretty obvious and unconvincing comb-over to the very big bald spot in Mark Zuckerberg’s howling void of a conscience.”
Resorting to regulation
According to Doctorow, regulators should not try to tackle these massive players in the technology sector, but instead make it possible for competitors to grow and succeed on their own terms. Some businesses make this more difficult to achieve, but digital systems everywhere run on common platforms. If Facebook were forced to allow other firms to develop tools and services that could interact with those already provided by the company, its business model should evolve accordingly. Users would no longer have to choose between Instagram or Facebook, and both entities could compete directly for their business.
“The problem with Facebook isn’t merely that Mark Zuckerberg is uniquely badly suited to being the social media czar of three billion people’s lives, unelected and unaccountable,” he concluded. “It’s that that job shouldn’t exist.”
Doctorow latest book, Chokepoint Capitalism, weighs these kinds of fundamental restrictions on our economic freedom. As another example, he examined the ongoing challenge of copyright, which has been vigorously defended, yet which remains an “alienable” right that individuals and organizations routinely surrender so they can work for major technology or entertainment firms.
“It’s not enough to just give people more copyright,” Doctorow said. “It’s like if your bullied kid got stopped at the school gate every morning and had all their lunch money taken off them. Giving them more lunch money isn’t going to get them fed."
“Even if the bullies mount campaigns to say ‘the kids of Canada need more lunch money, they’re all starving’, it doesn’t matter. Those kids are not going to get to the cafeteria, because they have to pass through the chokepoint, and at the chokepoint whatever you’ve given them gets taken off them.”
When asked directly about what each of us might do to tackle this daunting situation, Doctorow highlighted the value of strength in numbers. Rather than focusing on resolving each of the many different outcomes of monopolistic practices — from a single league for professional wrestling to the global giant that dominates the manufacturing of eyeglasses — we should realize our common cause.
“Today there are a thousand different people who are fighting monopoly in some way, in a thousand ways in a thousand sectors,” he said. “They’re workers, they’re customers, they’re people who live downstream of pollution. And all of those people are natural allies, even if they don’t know it yet.
“When people who care about wrestling, and the people who care about beer, join arms with the people who care about fibre optic, and march together on Parliament Hill demanding an end to monopoly, that’s when we’ll get regulators who actually give a damn about this.”