Yesterday’s Weapons and Today’s Titans

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    Warren would be more useful in reforming US IP/Trademark/Copyright laws so that behemoths like Amazon and Google (and Microsoft, and Apple) can’t leverage those laws so effectively to stomp out upstart competition.

    But no, they want the big, headline grabbing effort that will make them look heroic while doing nothing to actually prevent this from happening again in 10-20 years. Which is probably the point, because they might need to look heroic again in another decade or two.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Cain
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    The first step is often the hardest. With the old anti-trust tools, the first step is to define the market where the company is dominant. AT&T was easy, largely because the Communications Act of 1934 defined it. There was considerable surprise when the judge accepted “desktop computer operating system” as a market in the Microsoft case. Defining Amazon’s market in such a way that a judge will accept it and Amazon dominates to a sufficient degree (typically 80%) looks to me to be a daunting task. Ditto for Google and Facebook.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Michael Cain
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      Good point. Google has some vulnerabilities here that I think the other two lack, specifically search and Android.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Will Truman
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        Isn’t Android largely open source? I know Google drives the development, but I thought the OS itself was a Linux variant.Report

        • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Oscar Gordon
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          It’s a bit tricky. Anyone can grab the source and make a platform from it, and some have done that.

          BUT, if you want Google Play (which includes Google’s App Store) to be on your resultant platform, you have to play ball with Google. Interestingly, Amazon’s Kindle Fire does not have Google’s App Store. It has Amazon’s App Store. I’ve seen a few other devices like that.Report

          • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Doctor Jay
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            And, IIRC, any producer thatuses Android can’t use any of the variants. In other words, Samsung can’t shrug off the Play store and release its own Android variant. Which is they their own attempt, Tizen, wasn’t one of those. This wasn’t an issue with the Amazon Fire because it they don’t have any Google-suite Android devices.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Doctor Jay
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            I do not know the details of this. Two observations that may be relevant:

            The last time I used a pure open source OS on my phone (CyanogenMod, since renamed LineageOS), the phone firmware and the Google Play Store package were separate downloads from the same website – so you could choose to have a pure OSS phone, or an OSS operating system to which you added the Play store and whatever software you then downloaded via the Play store.

            Xiaomi has their own marketplace app that they install on phones sold in China (where Google’s market is banned), and they install the Google market on phones imaged for export markets. I understand one can temporarily enable installation of apps from outside whichever market app is installed on your phone, download an APK for the other one, and thus have two different app markets on your phone. I have not done this.

            Oh and – there are lots of flavours of Android – different manufacturers put considerably different UIs on their Android phones. The app market app is the same though, so it’s not generally different as an app marketing platform.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Will Truman
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        Android’s market share of the “smart phone operating system” market in the US has bounced around between 50% and 55% since early in 2012. Assuming that a judge accepts that as a market (likely) and 55% as an effective monopoly (unlikely), then the question is, “Which of the various business practices that monopolies/trusts can’t use is Google guilty of?” Price-fixing? Bundling?

        Now, if you can get the judge to accept “smart phones running Android” as the market, then Google’s likely in trouble.Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck
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    Well, we’re again looking at history repeating itself. The question is whether this time is the tragedy or the farce.Report

  4. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    You can’t base policy on your crystal ball that says “this won’t be a problem 20 years from now”. You might be right, but then again, you might not be. We are all aware these days of predictions that seemed certain but turned out wrong.

    So I don’t buy the “this will be irrelevant in 20 years” argument, even though it might be right.

    Given that, I’m not so sure about Facebook. It has issues, but it also exploits a human need that is not ever going to go away. People desire to connect to each other, and there is a natural monopoly that arises out of a network effect. The place to go to connect to people is the place with all the people. E-Bay works the same way. The place to go to sell stuff by auction is the place with all the buyers.

    I’m not sure what “breaking it up” will accomplish, though. It kind of feels like trying to use an axe to get rid of kudzu.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Doctor Jay
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      Most of the predictions that turned out to be wrong have gone the other direction: Companies that looked invincible that weren’t.

      To me, the belief that they won’t be important in ten years – if I am correct about that – speaks to them not having the market power they are accused of having. Especially if, in their case, the only anti-competitive practices involve gobbling up marketshare (through acquisitions) rather than specific anti-competitive acts such as bundling, price fixing, etc.

      I would argue that eBay itself is demonstrative in a way. It used to be *the* big giant marketplace. But auctions (where it maintains its advantage) is only a small part of their business and the main part of their business, buyer-seller facilitation they not only dominate but Warren is specifically going after their competitor.

      Tangentially, I am actually a bit surprised how removed eBay is from the Amazon discussion. Maybe because I use it more than most. But people are talking about the unfair leverage Amazon has over sellers and my immediate response is “There’s always eBay”… which nobody finds convincing. But if I’m looking to buy something online it’s usually the second place I look (sometimes first, sometimes third). But my wife doesn’t even have an eBay account, so maybe the unconvinced are correct.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Trumwill
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        I think that’s because eBay doesn’t promote itself as the source of things the way that Amazon does, so there’s a lot less perception of eBay as being The Big Company.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Trumwill
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        But “most” isn’t really good enough. Speculations about the future kind of don’t matter at all.

        That’s our theory of policy, and of torts, and of criminal behavior. You did something to merit punishment. I mean, do we look at someone who shoplifts and say, “well, they will probably be dead in 10 years, so never mind?”

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not seeing a lot of merit in Warren’s proposal, precisely because it lacks the specificity of “this is what they did that harms consumers and is therefore wrong, and deserving of punishment”.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Doctor Jay
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          In this case, though, the “wrongness” is context-dependent rather than wrong-wrong*. I mean, they’re accused of wrong-wrong too, and for that they should be punished where applicable. But what is she criticizing Facebook for? Buying other companies, mostly. You don’t punish companies for buying other companies.

          You might separate them, as she is proposing, but that’s for the sake of market competition and not punishment. In evaluating that, though, the state of competition is central past, present, and future.

          If they’re accused of some sort of malfeasance like Wells Fargo, then yeah it doesn’t matter so much where we think they will be in ten years because malfeasance is malfeasance. But that’s not really the case here. She’s saying they’ve gotten so big that they can’t be competed with and as a result their product is not very good (from a user interface standpoint) and that’s the basis on which she is saying customers were harmed. Which, if true, I might actually think breaking them up is worthy of consideration. But it (at least the former part) not, and the reasons for which tie in very closely with my belief that it’s going to catch up with them the same way it historically has with such industry leaders.

          (I say “most” but I really can’t think of a good counterexample. Even something like Intel, which was once in about as good a position as a company can ask to be, had to fend off a challenge from AMD that forced it to improve its product after they got lethargic. Feels a bit like immigration and automation where “This time is different.”… to the point that, if anything, I’m being too confident regarding Google’s market position past the short term.)

          * – The same actually applies to Amazon as well. The accusation against them is that they’re releasing similar products at a lower price. Not at a loss with the goal of driving the other companies out of business… just selling people stuff for less money. Google is a different matter, as she does accuse them specifically of dubious behavior.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Will Truman
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            “She’s saying they’ve gotten so big that they can’t be competed with and as a result their product is not very good ”

            I don’t think she’s actually saying that. I think that she’s saying that they’re big and that’s bad regardless of whether they have competition or a good product.

            Which, if you accept her framing, isn’t immediately wrong.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman in reply to DensityDuck
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              She specifically cites product quality as the reason it’s bad, and the lack of competition for the reason the quality is lacking.

              Facebook would face real pressure from Instagram and WhatsApp to improve the user experience and protect our privacy.

              (I don’t disagree with her completely on that, actually. If I didn’t think it would catch up with them, I could be convinced to break them up. Not as a punitive measure for malfeasance, though.)Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Warren’s argument for breaking up the tech giants is dividing across predictable lines for the most part. Most people on my side support it because they see believe that the tech companies are too big and too powerful. They also believe the idea is popular among the masses and polls well. I have no idea if the last part is true. Even if true in a statistical sense, I’m not sure that most people saying break up big tech have any idea what it means in theory.

    The more free market side believes that the tech companies should not be broken up because their dominance represents the diffuse opinions of millions and what people really want. Amazon is seen as making people wealthier by making more products available at lower prices to more people. I’m not entirely sure that all the tech companies got to be so big by being simply better than anybody else either. There are lots of online sellers like Amazon but they tend to be more specialty sites like Mr. Porter. There might not really need to be that many online general retailers.

    I’m moderately against breaking the tech giants up at this point. Its not clear how many of them can be broken up effectively. Should online retailers be forced to specialized in one particular product? Should Facebook only be available for social media and nothing else? Should Iphones, Iwatches, and Ipads be made by separate companies when the ability to link all your Apple products together is important? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to LeeEsq
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      I mostly agree with this, Lee. I also (think I) agree with Oscar’s point above about how the priority should be to reform intellectual property laws, even though my understanding of those laws is weak.

      My problem with Warren in general is that she seems to go for the easy, crowd pleasing talk. People as a rule are suspicious of larger corporations, so she talks about “breaking them up.” People believe that a financial collapse happened because other people committed crimes, so sh wants to find those other people and put them in jail.

      None of that means she’s wrong, at least not necessarily. But she panders to people who assume the answers but doesn’t seem to care if the answers are right.

      Of course, there’s a certain right of center political style that does this, too.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq
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      It should be noted that at least in the case of tech giants, it does not actually poll very well. It’s still something that needs to be sold to the public, rather than something that can sell Warren and the Democratic Party.Report

  6. Avatar veronica d
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    I’m somewhat biased on this, to say the least.Report

  7. Avatar Marchmaine
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    I do want to point out that there’s a certain amount of fatalism in the argument… For example, that the O/S and Browser wars eventually resolved themselves does not shed light on whether our current present might have been better (or different) for having had policies in place that discouraged the business practices in the first place.

    Which is to say, as some on the right have said, the present moment doesn’t require a specific plan on what companies to target for the busting of trusts, but rather we should perhaps reorient our current assumptions about a regulatory regime that favors “consumer prices” over market competition. That is, arguing that future prices will come down owing to consolidation now, is a counter factual in itself that perhaps oughtn’t be the primary justification for allowing consolidation in the first place.

    A second, and admittedly more difficult and counter-intuitive stance to take is properly rank efficiency gains below or offset by costs associated with efficiency with regards human capital and the reduction of competition for human capital offset by efficiency gains.

    Ultimately, if we want to preserve entrepreneurial capitalism, it is necessary to privilege competition over efficiency… which sounds odd to our ears – having been inured to the opposite for at least 40 or 50 years.

    Switching gears a second time, there’s a secondary argument to be made questioning some approaches to “diversified” industries… for example, picking on Amazon, there’s a sort of dubious “free market” argument that assumes that as it moves into new and different markets that it “wins” its business owing to consumer oriented practices… but there’s a solid argument to be made that AWS (for example) is bankrolling its move into Grocerices (for example) and that’s not a competitive advantage we ought to allow it to exploit against, well, Groceries. The signal that it sends the market isnt that its doing Groceries well, its that it does Cloud Hosting well and can afford to do Groceries very poorly until such time that cometitive groceries that don’t also have Cloud Hosting cash backing suffer competitively. Leading often to consolidation and/or its corollary that only diversified conglomerates can operate in a “free market” which itself is a market signal…

    So my counter-intuitive thought for the day is that by our current measures of health, our market capitalism is healthy… but change the measures? Not as healthy as we think. Of course, why change the measures when all the lights are green? Are all the lights green?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Marchmaine
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      it is necessary to privilege competition over efficiency

      Hence my comment about fixing our IP laws.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        Sure, thats part and parcel of the same sort of ossification of the rules that requires us to change our headspace so that we protect actual innovation and not reward rents. You could double dip in a radical way if you didn’t make the rights transferable at all… that is, if you (the corporate you) invent something, then you can leverage the innovation; the moment you sell it or yourself, the govt. protection is gone. You still, of course have whatever headstart, wisdom, practical derivatives you already enjoy. But the moat? That’s gone.Report

  8. Avatar DavidTC
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    Google Assistant isn’t great, but I have tried using the alternatives and it’s extremely difficult because so much of the OS is geared towards Google Assistant. I subscribe to Google Play Music because it’s the one that plays nicest with Google Assistant, which plays nicest with Android. And on and on.

    Ironically, the fact that Google Assistant _didn’t_ integrate with my music app (I use one called Blackplayer Ex for…no real reason. I just like the fact it downloads album art and have organizational stuff I like.) is why I went to look for alternatives for Google Assistant. I use a sorta hacky voice assistant called Saiy.

    This sort of monopolistic behavior is everywhere in tech.

    That was part of the problems with Windows/IE…Microsoft started writing programs, and encouraging others to write programs (Because they provided a lot of the development tools.), that embedded IE inside them, as basically a ‘fancy text viewer’, for…literally no good reason. They already had multiple ways to do that, and HTML was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is now. But they made sure that tons of apps embedded something that was basically ‘IE minus the outside user interface’, and then whined and complained about how that was now part of the OS and it was hard to remove and keep things working…which was true, but they’re the ones who did that in the first place. For, again, basically no reason.

    I’d like to see a requirement that if people made two apps, and those apps are designed to work with each other and either of those apps had a large enough percentage of the marketbase or installed base on a device (Which would cover any pre-installed software, obviously.), then they have to expose and document the API that is being used, and allow the selection of alternate apps for either one.

    People tend to think this would be tricky because they don’t really understand how companies design programs. Two apps (Edit: commercial apps, that is. God only knows what’s going on in internal apps.) developed by the same company almost certainly are not going to be mucking around with the internals of each other. Modern OSes generally have rules against programs poking around inside other program’s memory, in fact. So any two programs that work together, even ones by the same company, use some sort of OS-level standard to talk to each other…that anyone can use. Moreover, inside the company, there almost certainly will be an actual written API document that each app has agreed to follow, that keeps the same (Or maybe revised forward) from release to release.

    In fact, I’d argue that we should literally require _every single_ program to document _every single_ API that can be called on it(1). Not just for interoperability but for security. If I have installed a program on my computer, I have a right to know it’s possible to speak to it in a certain way and have it do things, that there’s no backdoor functionality that can be called that I don’t know about.

    1) With a possible exception of things that can be called on every program. Like every Windows program can be ordered to redraw their visible windows. Or maybe just let programs say ‘We have all the traditional APIs all programs on our OS have, and additionally…’Report

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