The Overlooked Challenges Of Big Tech Regulation

This article has originally been published on International Hour, Venice Diplomatic Society’s blog.

The IT world and politics perpetually cross their paths, since the former strongly influences the latter, yet seldom the opposite happens. Arguably, this non-reciprocal influence is caused by a too limited assessment in political and human terms of the issues raised by technology, specifically by computer sciences. The great historical innovation of the World Wide Web is characterized by an intrinsic anarchy since no regulatory entity governs it. As a result, a dominating role is quickly and easily filled by great for-profit corporations, which become biased and opinionated regulators of this immense, dynamic and chaotic space.

Let us picture a person walking out her dog on a peaceful Sunday stroll. In such a context, only a fool would start speculating on the legal nature of the land she is stepping upon. To whom does that street belong? What is her right to walk there? What if her dog poops in the middle of it?

The reason why such questions appear so insignificant is quite simple: the street, as well as most of the land we stand on, is a public space. Such space is not only open to all, but it is also owned by everyone. I am concerned whether my dog poops on the street also because the street is not solely mine, but I both exploit and possess it to the same extent as my country's fellow citizens.

Interestingly enough, it does not work in the same way on the internet. According to the definition given by Wikipedia, the value of a public space is limited to its accessibility, openness, and use. However, I believe that its deeper meaning extends relevantly further. For example, when visiting any website, a user connects to a server in some server farm of some IT company, located somewhere around the world, built with a code whose source is hidden most of the time. This is far from being an actual public space. Add to the equation mandatory subscription to access any kind of content, webpages bloated with cookies and tracking software, and this picture quickly escalates to complete hell.

Still, in 2022 most of the conversations, debates, fights, announcements, or any sort of human interaction happen prevalently online, on that very same internet. It is curious to note that the de facto public conversation actually takes place in private spaces. Yes, we all do have access to them, but there is nobody who can safeguard our rights except for private corporations arbitrarily deciding what are the moderation criteria, practically being the gatekeepers to access any discussion.

As long as we can avoid minding about posting a picture with our friends on our social media accounts, it is perfectly normal that we are not preoccupied about who owns this picture and where it could legally end up being. Nonetheless, daily news more and more frequently raise red flags by pondering the path Big Tech is steering towards. The most prominent and recent news is, of course, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter: all of a sudden brought in the hands of one man one of the most powerful communication platform on the face of planet Earth. Still, there are many more signs of a worrisome trend, even if they are less clear and more subtle. Yet, we mindlessly continue to take advantage of free (as in free of charge, not in true freedom) platforms that are for some mysterious reason gifted to us by immense super-national entities, which, instead, invest a lot of money to develop and maintain them.

Although there exist critiques questioning the fundamental technological infrastructure upon which multinational empires are built, these are usually authored by technicians who focus primarily on the technical aspects. Let's take as an example the Cambridge Analytica scandal concerning both the US elections and the Brexit referendum of 2016. Because of the great amount of data collected from millions of Facebook users, institutions, media outlets and scholars carried out numerous investigations. While these accounts have been extremely worthwhile and critical to prevent future repercussions, they still remain ex-post evaluations. An ex-ante assessment on the functioning of algorithms, and on some other structural issues that allowed Cambridge Analytica to access an incredibly vast amount of data, is left to technicians alone.

Today's politicians, sociologists, and philosophers are slow in addressing the real thorny issues because they are defined by terms that are too technical and too low-level. As a result, problems concerning the monopoly of the tech industry are usually reduced to an economical point of view. Luckily enough, through the new Digital Markets Act the European Union has finally committed to address the disregarded aspects of the IT world and to unmask its unjust patterns. The DMA is a historical regulation that should be voted in the European Parliament as soon as this July. It does not merely focus on preventing market failure or market domination, but it also compels certain firms to open their platforms to competitors, thus ensuring Adversarial Interoperability, defined by Cory Doctorow from Electronic Frontier Foundation as follows:

For a really competitive, innovative, dynamic marketplace, you need adversarial interoperability: that's when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them. Think of third-party printer ink, alternative app stores, or independent repair shops that use compatible parts from rival manufacturers to fix your car or your phone or your tractor.

Cory Doctorow, Adversarial Interoperability - EFF

What Doctorow promotes is a way to equalize and actualize competition within the tech industry, by removing the obstacle of the so-called switching cost. Even if a super-awesome and game-changing social network pops up, its user base will inevitably always be smaller than the mainstream social networking giants we know. For a user, it would become extremely costly to give up connections with many other users on the bigger platforms in order to get into the new one. Big Tech exploits this aspect either to crush competition or to buy competing companies and services altogether. Thanks to adversarial interoperability, any user continues to be able to connect to other users even if they are on different platforms, hence they would always choose the service most suited for them over the most popular one.

The main takeaway is that Big Tech is impossible to break up, being really too powerful, widespread, and adaptable. As a matter of fact, this is not a problem insofar it should not be broken up at all. It should be broken open. Any platform, indeed, should be (and is being) coerced to adopt Adversarial Interoperability. It is useless to try and make the internet a truly public space. Even the most welcomed and bold attempts at doing so, such as the trending Web3 could easily end up in a catastrophic gigantic bubble burst. As history teaches us, we should instead aim at exploiting the current system and the current framework to ensure greater equality and openness, without necessarily breaking things up or pointing the finger at some supposedly bad guy. The DMA is the first concrete step towards the internet of the future.

Tommaso Marmo

Note: the Digital Markets Act is an articulated proposal for a regulation, which contains extensive details about any sort of provision. For this reason, its content has been extremely synthesized in this article. More resources are listed below.

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