From advocates, politicians and technologists, calls for doing something about big tech grow louder by the day. Yet concrete ideas are few or failing to reach the mainstream.

This post covers what breaking up big tech would mean and why it’s not enough. I propose an open intervention that will give people a real choice and a way out of controlled walled gardens. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are not natural monopolies and we need to regulate them to support competition and alternative business models.

What’s the problem?

As a social species, our social and digital infrastructure is of vital importance. Just think of the postal service that even in the most extreme circumstances, would deliver letters to soldiers fighting on the front lines. There’s a complicated and not-risk-free system that makes this work, and we make it work, because it matters. It is so important for us to keep in touch with our loved ones, stay connected with news and what’s happening in our communities, countries and the planet.

Our ability to easily and instantly collaborate and work with people halfway across the world is one of the wonders of the Information Age. The data we collect can help us make better decisions about our environment, transport, healthcare, education, governance and planning. It should be used to support the flourishing of all people and our planet. But right now, so much of this data, so much of our social digital infrastructure, is owned, designed and controlled by a tiny elite of companies, driven by profit.

We’re witnessing the unaccountable corporate capture of essential services, reliance on exploitative business models and the increasing dominance of big tech monopolies.

Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft use their amassed power to subvert the markets which they operate within, stifling competition and denying us real choice. Amazon has put thousands of companies out of business, leaving them the option to sell on their controlled platform or not sell at all. Once just a digital bookstore, Amazon now controls over 49% of the US digital commerce market (and growing fast) — selling everything from sex toys to cupcakes. Facebook (who, remember, also own Instagram and WhatsApp) dominates social, isolating people who don’t want to use their services. About a fifth of the population of the entire planet (1.6 billion) log in daily. They control a vast honeypot of personal data, vulnerable to data breaches, influencing elections and enabling the spread of misinformation. It’s tough to imagine a digital industry Google doesn’t operate in.

These companies are too big, too powerful and too unaccountable. We can’t get them to change their behaviour. We can’t even get them to pay their taxes. And it’s way past time to do something about this.

Plans to break up monopolies

Several politicians are calling for breaking up big tech. In the USA, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wants two key interventions. One is to reverse some of the bigger controversial mergers and acquisitions which have happened over the last few years, such as Facebook with WhatsApp and Instagram, while going for a stricter interpretation and enforcement of anti-trust law.

The other intervention is even more interesting, and an acknowledgement of how much harm comes from monopolies who are themselves intermediaries between producers and consumers. Elizabeth Warren wants to pass “legislation that requires large tech platforms to be designated as ‘Platform Utilities’ and broken apart from any participant on that platform”. This would mean that Amazon, Facebook or Google could not both be the platform provider and sell their own services and products through the platform.

The EU has also taken aim at such platform power abuse. Google was fined €2.4 billion by the European Commission for denying “consumers a genuine choice by using its search engine to unfairly steer them to its own shopping platform”. Likewise, Amazon is currently under formal investigation for using their privileged access to their platform data to put out competing products and outcompete other companies’ products.

Meanwhile, in India, a foreign-owned company like Amazon is already prohibited from being a vendor on their own electronic market place.

Breaking up big tech is not enough

While break up plans will go some way to address the unhealthy centralisation of data and power, the two biggest problems with big tech monopolies will remain:

  1. It won’t give us better privacy or change the surveillance business models used by tech platforms; and
  2. It won’t provide genuine choice or accountability, leaving essential digital services under the control of big tech.

The first point relates to the toxic and anti-competitive business models increasingly known as ‘Surveillance capitalism’. Smarter people than me have written about the dangers and dark patterns that emerge from this practice. When the commodity these companies profit from is your time and attention, these multi-billion companies are incentivised to hook you, manipulate you and keep dialing up the rampant consumerism which is destroying our planet. Our privacy and time is constantly exploited for profit. The break ups Warren proposes won’t change this.

The second point means it still wouldn’t become it easier for other companies to compete or to experiment with alternative business models.

Right now, it’s near impossible to compete with Facebook and Amazon since their dominance is built on ‘network effects’. Both companies strictly police their user network and data. People aren’t choosing these platforms because they are better, they default to them because that’s where everyone else is. Connectivity and reach is vital for people to communicate, share, organise and sell — there’s no option but to go where most people already are. So we’re increasingly locked in. We need to make it possible for other providers and services to thrive.

Breaking big tech open

Facebook’s numerous would-be competitors don’t fail through not being good enough or failing to get traction, or even funding. Path was beautiful and had many advantages over Facebook. Privacy-preserving Diaspora got a huge amount of initial attention. Scuttlebutt has fantastic communities. Alternatives do exist. None of them have reduced the dominance of Facebook. The problem is not a lack of alternatives, the problem is closed design, business model and network effects.

What Facebook has, that no rival has, is all your friends. And where it keeps them is in a walled off garden which Facebook controls. No one can interact with Facebook users without having a Facebook account and agreeing to Facebook’s terms and conditions (aka surveillance and advertising). Essentially, Facebook owns my social graph and decides on what terms I can interact with my friends. The same goes for other big social platforms: to talk to people on LinkedIn, I have to have a LinkedIn account; to follow people on Twitter, I must first sign up to Twitter and so on. As users we take on the burden of maintaining numerous accounts, numerous passwords, sharing our data and content with all of these companies, on their terms.

It doesn’t have to be this way. These monopolies are not natural, they are monopolies by design — choosing to run on closed protocols and walling off their users in silos.

We need to regulate Facebook and others to force them to open up their application programme interfaces (APIs) to make it possible for users to have access to each other across platforms and services.

Technically, interoperability is possible

There are already examples of digital social systems which don’t operate as walled gardens: email for example. We don’t expect Google to refuse to deliver an email simply because we use an alternative email provider. If I send an email to a Gmail account from my Protonmail, FastMail or even Hotmail account — it goes through. It just works. No message about how I first have to get a Gmail account. This, fundamentally, is the reason email has been so successful for so long. Email uses an open protocol, supported by Google, Microsoft and others (probably due to being early enough, coming about in the heady open days of the web, before data mining and advertising became the dominant forces they are today … although email is increasingly centralised and dominated by Google).

While email just works, a technology that’s very similar, such as instant messaging, doesn’t. We have no interoperability, which means many of us have upward of four different chat apps on our phones and have to remember which of our friends are on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), Signal, Wire, Telegram, etc. 

We don’t carry around five phones so why do we maintain accounts with so many providers, each storing our personal details, each with a different account and password to remember? This is because these messaging apps use their own, closed, proprietary protocols and harm usability and accessibility in the process. This is not in the interests of most people.

Interoperability and the use of open protocols would transform this, offering us a better experience and control over our data while reducing our reliance on any one platform. Open protocols can form the basis of a shared digital infrastructure that’s more resilient and would help us keep companies that provide digital services, accountable. It would make it possible to leave and choose whose services we use.

What would this look like in practice?

Say I choose to use a privacy-preserving service for instant messaging, photo sharing and events — possibly one of the many currently available today, or even something I’ve built or host myself. I create an event and I want to invite all my friends, wherever they are.

This is where the open protocol and interoperability come in. I have some friends using the same service as me, many more scattered across Twitter, Facebook and other social services, maybe a few just on email. If these services allow interconnections with other services, then every person, wherever they are, will get my event invite and be able to RSVP, receive updates and possibly even comment (depending on what functionality the platforms support). No more getting left out as the cost of caring about privacy.

Interoperability would be transformational. It would mean that:

  1. I can choose to keep my photos and data where I have better access, security and portability. This gives us greater control over our data and means that…
  2. Surveillance is harder and more expensive to do. My data will not all be conveniently centralised for corporations or governments to use in unaccountable ways I haven’t agreed to. Privacy ❤
  3. I won’t lose contact with, leave out, or forget friends who aren’t on the same platform as me. I can choose services which serve my needs better, not based on the fear of social exclusion or missing out. Hooray for inclusion and staying friends!
  4. I’ll be less stressed trying to remember and contact people across different platforms with different passwords and accounts (e.g. this currently requires a Facebook event, email, tweets, WhatsApp group reminders and Mastodon, Diaspora and Scuttlebutt posts for siloed communities…)
  5. Alternative services, and their alternative business models and privacy policies become much more viable! Suddenly, a whole ecosystem of innovation and experimentation is possible which is out of reach for us today. (I’m not saying it will be easy. Finding sustainable funding and non-advertising-based business models will still be hard and will require more effort and systemic interventions, but this is a key ingredient).

Especially this last point, the viability of creating alternatives, would start shifting the power imbalance between Facebook and its users (and regulators), making Facebook more accountable and incentivising them to be responsive to user wants and needs. Right now Facebook acts as it pleases because it can — it knows its users are trapped. As soon as people have meaningful choice, exploitation and abuse become much harder and more expensive to maintain.

So, how do we get there?

In the first instance, regulating Facebook, Twitter and others to make them open up their APIs so that other services can read/write to Facebook events, groups, messages etc. would be the first milestone. Yes, this isn’t trivial and there are questions to work out, but it can be done.

Looking ahead, investing now in developing open standards for our social digital infrastructure is a must. Funders and governments should be supporting the work and adoption of open protocols and standards — working with open software and services to refine, test and use these standards and see how they work in practice over time. We’ll need governance mechanisms for evolving and investing in our open digital infrastructure that includes diverse stakeholders and accounts for power imbalances between them.

We use platforms which have not been co-designed by us and on terms and conditions we have little say over. Investment into alternatives have largely failed outside of more authoritarian countries that have banned or blocked the likes of Google and Facebook.

We need to do more to ensure our data and essential services are not in the hands of one or two companies, too big to keep accountable. And after many years of work and discussions on this, I believe openness and decentralisation must play a central role.

Redecentralize.org and friends are working on a campaign to figure out how to make this a reality. Is this something you’re working on already or want to contribute and get invited to future workshops and calls? Then ping me on hello@redecentralize.org.

The opportunity is huge. By breaking big tech open, we can build a fairer digital future for all, so come get involved!

• This blogpost is an reposted version of a post originally published on the Redecentralize blog