Monopolies are privatizing the World Wide Web. Here's how to stop it.
Over the past two decades, internet access has gone from an odd curiosity to a basic necessity of life, akin to water and electricity service.
But the quality and usefulness of that service is under threat from monopolist corporations. If we want to preserve the internet and the World Wide Web as a neutral and open platform, we must break up and regulate the corporate behemoths who are effectively gaining control over it.
First, let me fix some often-jumbled definitions for the sake of clarity. The internet is a worldwide communication network, originally developed by the U.S. government in the 1960s. The World Wide Web is the primary way most people access the internet today, developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and rolled out across the world in the 1990s. The internet is the communication backbone, while the Web is the familiar collection of websites, links, HTML, and so on that you access with a web browser.
Berners-Lee's basic idea was to give everything on the global internet a unique identifier (the www.website.com structure), figure out a reliable transmission protocol so that data could be shared across the internet, and set up a publishing language so anybody could put together a website reasonably easily.
The Web is egalitarian and decentralized by design. The protocol is non-proprietary, so anyone can build a website and anyone connected to the Web can read it (though of course one must pay for servers and such). The point was to set up a basic communications structure that would be neutral and fair for all to use.
That basic structure is what is under threat today, with the growth of platform monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. As André Staltz writes, over the last few years Google and Facebook have grown to a large enough share of total web activity to leverage their market power into controlling the web as a whole — in effect, they are beginning to privatize the Web. Google accounts for 87 percent of search, while Facebook accounts for 38 percent of U.S. social media traffic. Together, they account for 77 percent of referral traffic. Even the social media figure understates things, since many of the big sites are owned by the top two: Google owns second-place YouTube, while Facebook owns third-place WhatsApp, fourth-place Facebook Messenger, and seventh-place Instagram.
As Saltz writes, these two have mostly stopped competing directly with each other. Google has abandoned its attempts to break into social media with Google Plus, while Facebook has stopped supporting Bing. Instead they've settled down into a comfortable duopoly, each with effective control over its big chunk of the Web.
Then, of course, there is Amazon's total dominance of e-commerce and server storage. The company accounted for 46 percent of online sales in 2016 and 53 percent of growth in those sales, plus a third of the cloud storage market.
The future these corporate behemoths are aiming at is easy enough to discern. Large corporations don't want neutral platforms with open competition and a reasonable degree of choice. They want easy profits coming from captive consumers with little choice but to take what the corporation is offering. Google, Facebook, and Amazon want as much market control as possible — and that means over anyone who uses the internet for communication, sales, or shopping.
The future on autopilot might be something like what exists in Portugal right now, where net neutrality rules are explicitly repealed, and people can buy tiered internet service where the cheap option only gives access to the big three. Smaller businesses, not wanting to miss out on that traffic, will increasingly use Facebook or Google sub-pages to advertise themselves — putting them at the monopolists' mercy. Or it could simply evolve towards that way, where Google and Facebook's structural domination of the Web becomes so large that the rest of it simply withers out of existence (or is purchased).
Regulation is the only way to preserve a free and open Web. The internet giants must be prevented from buying any more companies, then divested of the ones (YouTube, WhatsApp, DoubleClick, etc) they do have. Regulation to ensure interoperability — forcing Facebook Messenger to also work with other chat systems, for example — would reduce structural dominance due to network effects. Finally, common carriage-style regulation (forbidding Google from leveraging its search dominance to boost its other products, or Amazon from squeezing its third-party sellers) would prevent abuse of market power.
It might even make the Web a more pleasant place. It's impossible to deny that it has gotten markedly more horrible over the past several years, and part of the reason is market concentration. It used to be there were thousands of prominent hobbyist communities with their own idiosyncrasies and interests. Some of those still exist, but about everything now takes place on a few gigantic platforms. The result has been a flattening of difference, a huge increase in volume, and systematic distortion in favor of profits above all else.
At any rate, it's long since time Silicon Valley got put on a big, heavy leash. Let us save the Web from creeping monopolization.