Despite the immeasurable value to us and the remaining potential for technology, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, etc. are now unchallenged monopolies. As their power grew so did each begin to censor, track, sell our data, to propagandize. Can we find a solution that restores a competitive marketplace, allows free speech without fear, and does so before the power of these monopolies becomes painfully known?
As we journey together, deeper into the mystifying techno future, think of this as a virtual reality Captcha. The world has been set to pause. We’ve all been presented with a brief questionnaire and test that we must complete before continuing. We want to be sure we haven’t forgotten the objective or fallen asleep at the wheel.
Whew! It looks like we can continue. You must have convinced the ‘system’ that you’re not a robot. Come to think of it, I wonder what the ‘system’ does if it determines that you ARE a robot?
Let’s face it. Google and other dominant tech platforms aren’t impressed that you can pass their test. To them, you are simply a MORE VALUABLE robot. But this pause of the system is our opportunity to conduct a test of our own; to weigh our state of affairs and to judge these platforms.
Zeroes & Ones
Just like you, I rely to some extent on the Internet (that amorphous thing that we kinda grasp but have little to no idea how it works) for email and access to information like what time it is or who won the Super Bowl in 1985. And let’s not minimize the impact of mobile phones. All mobile phone traffic is treated no differently than web browsing or online game play via the Internet. It’s all packet-based, baby! No more switch-based telecommunications for us.
Consequently, as recently as 1994 ALL phone calls were routed through switches. All the routers were still switch-based, not packet-based as they are today.
Oh Lord! What the hell is a ‘packet’, you’re thinking.
The short answer is, zeros and ones. Maybe that’s another way in which to view the “equality” we’re all treated to when using the services of the mega-tech companies. My online chat with that new attractive coworker is only zeros and ones, no different than Jeffrey Epstein ordering up some walnut sauce for delivery to his Caribbean island.
My first career in technology was in B2B Internet services. Our network at the time, added to the networks of about 14 other tier-one providers and, Ta Da! That WAS the Internet!
In the 1993-1995 range, was a momentous period for tech. The Telecommunications Reform Act, in which the Internet became public. Marc Andreessen’s company, Netscape came out with the game-changing Internet browser, Netscape Navigator. In 1995 I attended a meeting with GTE, which you millennials know as Verizon. They were reselling my company’s dial-up Internet access.
We were also designing the first online telephone book for GTE, known as “SuperPages.” Just take a second to ponder that.
Why did we need telephone books?! Oh, right. That’s how we would find phone numbers.
I remember our software guys explaining that the “SuperPages” code was not yet tested, and the GTE guys just not giving a shit.
It’s working great! How soon can we launch it?
Our company was just boasting about building Rodney Dangerfield’s website, and now GTE is having us program their national phone number directory.
After the meeting, the GTE engineers turned to me & said,
So, tell us about the Internet.
I guess I had a rapport going on with them. Grabbing a marker, I began to draw, to define TCP-IP & peering agreements, something few know about even today. Sure, modern day techs have less need to know the fundamentals. But it’s amazing that even a huge telco as recently as 1995 had to resell OUR dial-up access, and their senior engineers didn’t know anything about the Internet!
Back then, all I had to do is pull up a page with a tiny little 240 x 360 pixel window with live video from a nursery room cam showing an infant sleeping soundly, and any female executives in the room were wet with desire for anything we recommended. The Internet was where God moved freely between Cisco routers.
Upon the Wings of Angels, goes the Internet
Veering off into a little Internet history is partly to illustrate just how NEW it really is. It was also partly a necessity when contemplating modern day technology, as so much of it is integrated with the Internet, or fully dependent on it. Lastly, it was also to point out that the Internet is unique, mysterious and may be fragile. Who owns the Internet? Is it insured? As long as it works, most of us are happy.
The thing I like best about the Internet is how democratic it is; impartial and yet seemingly on everyone’s side. In this context, democracy is a good thing. It absolutely doesn’t care whether you are a complete nobody, or Prince fuckin’ Charles, seeing only packets.
But this is where things begin to break down very quickly, where the side you’re on matters a great deal. The Internet may be integral to the technology allowing you to watch a video hosted on YouTube. But nobody thinks about how it works when watching that video. Is YouTube democratic and on everyone’s side? Hell no!
To begin with, YouTube is not open-source like the Internet. YouTube is actually working to grow more DIFFERENT from other companies reliant upon the Internet. By differentiating itself, it’s superior to competitors and protects itself from losing market share.
They open their system to other technologies and companies only where there’s a value proposition. But they will never take a risk that might yield some of their user base or market share. They are, unlike the Internet a corporation required to act in their shareholder’s best interests, financially.
At the risk of upsetting Neocons, and even everyday Capitalists, the competitive nature of business can sometimes cause problems. YouTube grew so enormous as to never lose their title as #1 video host. But it’s unfair to focus entirely on YouTube.
Facebook, another viciously dominating powerhouse, is just unique enough to stand alone. They have no reason to be concerned that another “Whatever the Hell Facebook Is” will knock them into second place. It’s to their credit that they are so unique, maybe even for becoming the unchallenged leader they are today. But they are also uniquely networked with the world, with unique partnerships. They also enjoy the unique privilege of being the first of their kind.
What I’m establishing here is true of not just YouTube and Facebook. They have become de facto standards with no competitors even within range of them. Their various users, customers and partners are pathetically woven into their network. For most, there’s no alternative at all. For others, the alternative is an obviously ridiculous choice. Still, others find switching to a competitor far too much work for returns that are far too uncertain.
How did this reliance grow so deep? That is a complicated story. The more pressing question may be, is humanity stuck with them forever? Remember, we’re pausing to take stock. At times like this, it’s best to be as objective and as rational in our analysis as possible. Maybe we took a wrong turn some distance back. If so, there’s no point in continuing in this direction.
The worst thing about YouTube is…
So what is the bottom line? Are companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube and others permanent fixtures of society? I dread the thought.
So what if the tech giants ARE too big to fail?
Oh, you foolish person you. So what, you ask?
If, for example YouTube continues to lead by a massive margin, so too will we be subject to both the best thing about them, and the worst. We’ve described YouTube market share in almost flattering terms. But they are also horrible. Let’s begin with what many may consider the worst way.
The bottom line is that, YouTube openly censors content in an arbitrary fashion. Since we’ve taken quite some time to get this far, I won’t weigh this article down any further by addressing the censorship in detail. You may already know about this problem or have even experienced it first hand. I certainly have. Many legal experts agree that YouTube is well within their rights to censor what they wish to. I happen to think that’s true. As I said earlier, I don’t want to focus unfairly on YouTube nor Facebook. So let’s shift to Google.
The bottom line is that, Google also censors. Of greater concern to some is that they aren’t as open about their censorship. How Google censors is different than YouTube. In short, Google censors their search results by altering code and weighting the data queried by their software algorithms. There are some excellent articles written by others detailing this.
Google, like YouTube isn’t indicating it will curb this censorship. To many, the way in which it responded to Congressional hearings on its practices indicates that it simply does as it pleases. And so shall we. Isn’t that a simple way in which to create balance?
We can add invasion of privacy, intrusive advertising, shameless propaganda and other problems to censorship on the list of big-tech monopoly consequences. It’s well established that these problems exist, most argument being only about the severity.
Each tech monster appears to have developed these problems over time. If the Emperor is free to wear no clothes, will he? The take-away here is that, none of these companies even have a wardrobe anymore. We’ve got naked emperors, and that’s where we find ourselves.
Fight or Flight? The clock remains ticking.
Yes, in this analogy the world has been paused to allow some contemplation. But to act at all from here will require that we resume the game clock. There will be plenty of time to delay acting upon a difficult decision we already made once the clock is ticking again. So let’s not do that!
This brings us to a challenging conundrum that I and many others have been attempting to overcome without success. Once we agree the problems these mega-tech companies are causing should be addressed, what can be done?
There is the possibility that the users of these popular services could apply pressure to address the problems. In more typical industries, the users or “customers” have what is sometimes called, “buying power.” A simple boycott can often get a company’s attention, the result of being hit where it counts…in the pocketbook. Can you see where that may not work in this case? – Exactly. The business models of these companies have almost no revenue streams from users. Their revenue comes from Advertisers and whatever other, above or below the table deals they’ve got hooked up.
A boycott by people that use your service for free? That seems a long shot. Even the likelihood that reduced advertiser revenue that would result, might get them to act seems very remote.
Who’s in the mood for some censorship or propaganda? Anyone in the back?
There is one, surprising thing we’ve got going for us that could come in handy. Almost every user of every tech giant we’ve discussed agrees that these problems exist, and doesn’t like them. In other words, where a user has heard of these problems or experienced them first hand, they will dislike it. They may have varying levels of concern, but there’s a surprising solidarity in this regard. Nobody’s crying conspiracy theory!
This might make more sense if we play out a simple scenario. Just imagine each user of Facebook got a system alert that read…
Come on?! I can barely imagine the douche that would select A. More interesting still, is the likelihood that even employees or advertisers of these very companies would choose A.
Oh, sure. Jane might check box A, and agree she doesn’t want this crap going on. But maybe she only cares when it happens to her. Screw everyone else!
I hope this viewpoint is held by a very tiny minority. This, more pissy Jane may only be able to make such a choice for her own account, which could work in our favor. Would Jane be so bitter as to choose B for her own account if it meant we would all suffer?! Probably not, but Jane is beginning to sound sexy.
Realistically, these companies aren’t going to conduct such a poll, and surely wouldn’t abide by the chosen selection. But the scenario illustrates that, regarding their account preferences, and given that checking a box is all that’s required, we might have as many as 90% of users on our side! Yea!
So, there it is. We’ve come as far as I had planned in this article. It might not be such a relief to you, reading this now as it is to me. But I think it’s fair to state that we’ve made these determinations…
- The mega-tech monster corporations that most of us use begrudgingly are censoring us, tracking us, stealing our personal information, selling our private data, bombarding us with advertising and propaganda.
- These same corporations each constitute a permanent monopoly, an anti-competitive condition that unfairly paralyzes any competition.
- The vast majority of their uses are aware of these problems, dislike them and would likely vote against them.
Earlier, I explained the first challenging conundrum yet to be overcome, once we established these companies were causing these problems. What do we do then?
I argue now that the second, possibly final conundrum to overcome is this. Users of these systems, don’t like how these problems impact their lives. These people are not master visionaries or doing TED Talks with their prophetic analysis, on average. They may want to fix these problems, but have no idea where to start. More discouraging, were they to know, do they possess the will to check that box?
Will we ever get close to that dream of speaking our minds without reservation? Will we regain our privacy, own what we publish? Will we slow the torrent of advertising and propaganda, the impact of which is unknown? Can a solution emerge to check these monster company’s undeserved power and, once again benefit from a competitive marketplace?
The solution, whatever form it takes it seems will require less needle-like precision, and more synergistic union of all the parties in solidarity and recognition of the potential reward. And that’s probably over simplifying it!
Maybe someone has already devised a simple solution they could propose; maybe even one that wouldn’t require those darn users to do more than checking that box?