Transparency, not digital trust busting

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Jonathan Taplin offers a reasoned argument for how to regulate the big tech monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Facebook.  Taplin suggests 2 options: break up these companies, forcing them to sell off the units they have acquired (eg. Facebook: Instagram, Google: DoubleClick, Amazon: Zappos), or regulate them like public utilities and force them to share their intellectual property so others may innovate and profit off of their patents.

I certainly agree that these companies represent a classic monopolistic threat.  Amazon, by offering unlimited supply and unmatchable prices, is destroying niche retailers the same way Walmart did less than a generation ago.  Clearly, Facebook and Google bear significant responsibility for the disruption to the world of journalism, where--as Taplin points out--half the jobs have vanished in the last 15 years.

But how effective are 20th century solutions to these 21st century problems?  These companies have value for consumers because of their ubiquity.  Breaking them up will just make them less useful to us.  And how exactly would gaining access to their patents actually benefit anyone else?  Elon Musk did this with much of his intellectual property, which was meaningful because those patents will help other people make THINGS--efficient batteries, electric cars, etc.  But Google/Facebook/Amazon don’t really make THINGS--their product is the network of connections they have created.  Just having access to their secret technical sauce won’t make it any easier to build a successful competing network -- the audience is what matters.

Furthermore, all of these companies have made many of their most valuable and reusable technical assets available.  Google and Facebook have already open-sourced millions of lines of code to support all kinds of technical innovations.  Amazon has basically taken every innovation tool they have built and made it available to the public for next to nothing.  Thanks to the tools these three companies have made publically available to anyone, you can set up complex robust web applications in hours and for pennies--something that would have taken months or years, and cost thousands or millions of dollars just a decade ago.

No, breaking them up or forcing them to share IP won’t tangibly benefit the public.  You can’t put the digital network genie back in the bottle.  So how can we undo the damage done to publishers?  How can we protect consumers from price gouging when there’s only one store to buy everything?  How can we prevent new problems like “junk news” that only exist because of these kinds of platforms?

Some answers could come from a new form of radical transparency.  When companies are so big--with market caps that rival the GDP of many nations, with user bases that exceed the populations of most nations--they need to be regulated not like utilities, but like other nations.  

In the United States, Freedom of Information laws were enacted to force the government to share information with the public because of the public’s inherent right to know.  As citizens, the information belongs to us, and unless there’s a strong security argument against its release, we can have it.  These large tech companies need to answer to the public in the same way, because the data they manage, analyze, and sell is OUR data--even if they “own” it.  We need new laws to enable access to this data they keep locked away on their servers as well as the algorithms they use to collect and publish it.  Today it’s a black box, and we’re all left stumbling around in the dark trying to understand what they know about us, and how they use what they know.  Every time Google or Facebook changes the way one of their algorithms work, thousands of business and millions of users are affected.  We rarely have a clear understanding of what changes were made and, at the same time, these companies take little responsibility for the adverse consequences.  A market is only fair when all the participants have equal access to information.

With better public access to the algorithms and the data they collect, we will be able to analyze and critique how we receive our news.  Businesses will be able to identify ways they are disadvantaged by intentional or incidental quirks in the code.  Journalists will be able to expose when discrimination impacts our wallets.  The more knowledge we have about the data tech monopolies use to classify and target us, the better informed we can be both as consumers and citizens.