Mozilla’s Internet Health Report 2018 explored concentration of power and centralization online through a spotlight article, “Too big tech?” Five U.S. technology companies often hold the five largest market capitalizations of any industry and any country in the world. Their software and services are entangled with virtually every part of our lives. These companies reached their market positions in part through massive innovation and investment, and they created extremely popular (and lucrative) user experiences. As a consequence of their success, though, the product and business decisions made by these companies move socioeconomic mountains.
And, like everyone, tech companies make mistakes, as well as some unpopular decisions. For many years, the negative consequences of their actions seemed dwarfed by the benefits. A little loss of privacy seemed easy to accept (for an American audience in particular) in exchange for a new crop of emojis. But from late 2016 through 2017, things changed. The levels of disinformation, abuse, tracking, and control crossed a threshold, sowing distrust in the public and catalyzing governments around the world to start asking difficult questions.
Since our “Too big tech?” piece was published, this trajectory of government concern has continued. The Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal generated testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission levied a $5 billion fine on Google for practices associated with the Android mobile operating system. Meanwhile Republican Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called for a serious look at the power of tech companies, and Democratic Senator Mark Warner outlined a 20 point regulatory proposal for social media and technology firms.
Against this backdrop, the Federal Trade Commission has announced a public comment period and a series of hearings to evaluate its mandate in current market environments. The impact of the internet, and the harms we have seen in recent months and years, will be front and center in many ways throughout this proceeding.
We submitted to the FTC written comments to identify a few key pieces that we believe are worthy of discussion over the course of this proceeding, and that speak to the dynamic we are experiencing with the internet today, as well as key pieces of the path forward to improve the health of the internet. Here’s the top-level summary of our filing:
- Centralization online is heading in the wrong direction.
- Existing metrics and tools are insufficient to promote competition.
- Interoperability is a powerful, ready-to-use key to unlock competition in the tech sector.
- Agency processes can be faster and more targeted than litigation.
- Changes to law, policy, and practice regarding internet competition should be grounded in technology and built to benefit all internet users and businesses.
To support competition in the tech sector, we need the FTC to move fast and break bad habits – specifically, outdated theories, measurements, and tools that don’t suffice for the internet era. The U.S. is the home of Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the internet, and the historical heart of tech innovation. And yet, we are headed down a path of excessive centralization and control, where someday the freedom to code and compete will be realized in full only for those who work for a few large corporations.
One particular lever for counterpressure that deserves more attention at the FTC and elsewhere is interoperability – so we made it a focal point for this filing. If the future of the internet stays grounded in standards and built out through an ecosystem of transparent third-party accessible APIs, we can preserve the digital platform economy as a springboard for our collective social and economic welfare, rather than watching it evolve into an oligarchy of gatekeepers over our data.