The Music in Noise

How to Split Tech Monopolies - 2019-09-18

Recently we've begun to question the amount of power that large tech companies have over our lives through our data, especially as these companies begin to monopolize the market. Because of this, the solution that is provided by our legal system is to split these companies. The problem is, these companies are often multi-purposed and sell many extremely different products, and many of these products, even if the company were to split, would still hold a monopoly over the market. This is the case of the Skype video conferencing tool or the Google search engine. Even if you were to split a company such as Google based on its products, you would still have market monopolies. Even worse, how do you split something like Facebook which functions precisely because all your friends, family, and acquaintances use it? If you were to split Facebook, people would simply concentrate on the platform that had most of their contacts on it, which would recreate the initial problem. Simply splitting a company may have worked back when they just sold a specific non-social product or service, like repairs, retail, etc. However, with tech companies, especially those that rely on social networks, need a special kind of split that allows consumers to continue to interact with one another independently of which of the new companies they have their account with.

Think about this: imagine that by contracting a given internet service provider (ISP) you could only communicate with people (or rather, computers) that were also connected to that ISP's network. That is the equivalent of what social networks like Facebook and Skype do. They make sure that if you want to communicate with someone in their network, you must use their product and have an account with them, therefore surrendering your personal data to that company. So how could we allow for users to communicate with one another from separate platforms? Well, there's already a technology that exists that shows us how this is done: e-mail. With e-mail, it doesn't matter what server hosts your mail, what client you use, what protocol you use to access the e-mail server itself. How can this be? Even though e-mail is so versatile and flexible, it uses a single protocol to send e-mails: SMTP. It doesn't matter what service you use, where you host your mail, it all uses SMTP to send e-mails. You could even host your own e-mail server if you wanted to avoid relying on someone else's services!

So, how would this be applied to something like a social network such as Facebook? For this we have many examples, but the one I'm most familiar with is Diaspora* (the asterisk is actually part of the name). When you setup an account on the Diaspora* network, you don't register your account on any central server like you would on Facebook, but instead you register your account on a node, like if you were to register an e-mail at GMail, Yahoo!, ProtonMail, or even your own server. Then, all your data is hosted on that node, and that node only, but it can be shared with the friends you have on other nodes; similar to how all your e-mails are only on the server you're registered on, but you can send and receive e-mails from any other server. All that's needed is for there to be a common protocol between the servers (which Diaspora* has).

What about video conferencing tools, like Skype? Exact same principle, and there's even an example: Tox. Tox isn't a program you install on your computer, it's a network that can be accessed by a variety of programs. Don't like how one of them works? Use a different one! You'll still have access to all your friends because no matter the program you choose to use, it's all connecting to the same network.

Now you may be asking, "if this is such a wonderful idea, why haven't companies been doing this from the start?". Put quite simply, they have an incentive to lock users to their products, and their products alone. Competition is great for consumers, but bad for companies since it means they actually have to make an effort to provide a better product/service, rather than being the only viable option around. If there is no comparable product/service to the one provided by a single company, then there is nowhere else for the consumer to turn, and the company doesn't need to put any effort into swaying the consumer's opinion with good business practices. In this sense, tech companies have taken advantage of how social networks work (i.e. people will tend towards the network where they know the most people) and absorbed you into it.

Now, is it likely that such a solution will be implemented? No. The most likely scenario is that these companies will not even be split, but instead pay a (relatively very small) fine, and then continue on their merry way abusing people's data. But there's still something you can do about this. If you are truly worried about how your data is being used by these massive companies, look into decentralized alternatives. I have mentioned a few on the Decentralized page of my website, but you can find a much more complete list on Prism-Break (although not all are decentralized... but most are). Then, convince your friends and family to use these technologies and put the social network effect into practice. The more people you convince to use these technologies, the more will join, and the less power large corporations will have over your data.

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