If you’ve been watching tech news, you’ve seen the word “antitrust” thrown around quite generously. Recently, the US Goverment filed charges on a massive antitrust lawsuit against Google. Facebook regularly gets threatened for similar suits in Europe, and today Apple was hit with such a suit in France. “Antitrust” is the new buzzword but what exactly does it mean, both literally and for you?
According to Merriam-Webster, “antitrust” is defined as “laws to protect trade and commerce from unlawful restraints and monopolies or unfair business practices.” So what is being alleged in all of these cases is essentially that the company in question is creating a monopoly or using their size and resources to unfairly quash competition. I think we can all agree that in the case of Big Tech, that’s not really up for debate. Even as an avid hater of Google I sometimes use the phrase “Google it” (though I almost always quickly follow it up with “actually don’t. Google is awful”). Mastodon, the largest decentralized social network, has roughly just over a million total accounts. Compare that to its counterpart Twitter which has roughly 330 million monthly active users. And consider the aforementioned antitrust lawsuit was filed against Apple. According to IDC, Apple and Android are essentially the only two mobile operating systems around. Less than .1% of smartphones out there today use anything else. The point is, tech companies have absolutely created a monopoly. And while alternatives do technically exist, that’s like saying you can technically avoid paying taxes by not getting a job. You’re not technically wrong, you’re just being unrealistic for most of the population.
The problem is, personally, I don’t expect these lawsuits to change anything. Consider the following list of popular drinks: Aquafina, Gatorade, Lifewater, Naked, Propel, and Sobe. What do these have in common? If you guessed “they’re all owned by Pepsi, in addition to dozens of other popular food brands,” you’re either a great guesser or you’ve done your research! This is what’s often called “The Illusion of Choice” and unfortunately antitrust lawsuits almost never address this issue. Consider the next list of brands and try to guess which major tech company owns them all: IMDb, Goodreads, Twitch, Zappos, and Whole Foods. In case that last one didn’t give it away, the answer is Amazon, the same company who recently caught heat for killing small businesses by selling competing goods at a loss, waiting for the competitor to go out of businesses, then either buying them and/or jacking the prices back up higher than the competitor originally sold them for (source).
The problem I expect – as a not-law expert – is that even if there is some kind of anti-trust precedent put into place, nothing will stop these companies from becoming the top of the chain. Okay fine, Google can’t be the default search engine anymore. But maybe Apple’s new search engine becomes the default. Or maybe DuckDuckGo gets bought by Google. In the end, nothing has changed. The same five companies are still controlling everything. In fact, Facebook’s antitrust lawsuit argues that they do exactly that: they buy up or copy and kill companies that they find to be competitive. Wait, did I call that a lawsuit? It wasn’t a lawsuit, just an investigation that never went anywhere. Case and point.
I think that any progress is good progress, even if it’s slow and not enough. I’m glad to see that governments are at least pretending to start holding these companies accountable for anything at this point, but I don’t think that we as the public consumers should let our guard down. These are laws that should’ve been in place twenty years ago when Google first became synonymous with “web search” and Amazon started selling more than just books. By the time these laws get enacted, I’ll bet my paycheck that they’ll be weak, ineffective, and outdated. So while it is good to see any action at this point, don’t let it fool you into thinking that it will be effective. As always, you are still responsible for your own data protection and your own education. Know who these companies are in bed with and where your data is going.
Article received from and published on behalf of regular decentralize.today blog contributor, The New Oil