Don’t Break Up The Tech Oligarchs. Force Them To Share Instead.

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Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.

This is often a good thing – an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.

This is my sense of the current conversation around the impact of what Professor Scott Galloway has named “The Four” – the largest and most powerful American companies in technology (they are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, for those just returning from a ten-year nap).  Over the past year or so, the conversation around technology has become one of “something must be done.” Tech was too powerful, it consumed too much of our data and too much of our economic growth. Europe passed GDPR, Congress held ineffectual hearings, Facebook kept screwing up, Google failed to show up…it was all of a piece.

The conversation evolved into a debate about various remedies, and recently, it’s resolved into a pretty consistent consensus, at least amongst a certain class of tech observers: These companies need to be broken up. Antitrust, many now claim, is the best remedy for the market dominance these companies have amassed.

It’s a seductive response, with seductive historical precedent. In the 1970s and 80s, antitrust broke up AT&T, ultimately paving the way for the Internet to flourish. In the 90s, antitrust provided the framework for the government’s case against Microsoft, opening the door for new companies like Google and Facebook to dominate the next version of the Internet. Why wouldn’t antitrust regulation usher in #Internet3? Imagine a world where YouTube, Instagram, and Amazon Web Services are all separate companies. Would not that world be better?

Perhaps. I’m not well read enough in antitrust law to argue one way or the other, but I know that antitrust turns on the idea of consumer harm (usually measured in terms of price), and there’s a strong argument to be made that a free service like Google or Facebook can’t possibly cause consumer harm. Then again, there are many who argue that data is in fact currency, and The Four have essentially monopolized a class of that currency.

But even as I stare at the antitrust remedy, another solution keeps poking at me, one that on its face seems quite elegant and rather unexplored.

The idea is simply this: Require all companies who’ve reached a certain scale to build machine-readable data portability into their platforms. The right to data portability is explicit in the EU’s newly enacted GDPR framework, but so far the impact has been slight: There’s enough wiggle room in the verbiage to hamper technical implementation and scope. Plus, let’s be honest: Europe has never really been a hotbed of open innovation in the first place.

But what if we had a similar statute here? And I don’t mean all of GDPR – that’s certainly a non starter. But that one rule, that one requirement: That every data service at scale had to stand up an API that allowed consumers to access their co-created data, download a copy of it (which I am calling a token), and make that copy available to any service they deemed worthy?

Imagine what might come of that in the United States?

I’m not a policy expert, and the devil’s always in the details. So let me be clear in what I mean when I say “machine-readable data portability”: The right to take, via an API, what is essentially a “token” containing all (or a portion of) the data you’ve co created in one service, and offer it, with various protections, permission, and revocability, to another service. In my Senate testimony, I gave the example of a token that has all your Amazon purchases, which you then give to Walmart so it can do a historical price comparison and tell you how much money you would save if you shopped at its online service. Walmart would have a powerful incentive to get consumers to create and share that token – the most difficult problem in nearly all of business is getting a customer to switch to a similar service. That would be quite a valuable token, I’d wager*.

Should be simple to do, no? I mean, don’t we at least co-own the information about what we bought at Amazon?

Well, no. Not really. Between confusing terms of service, hard to find dashboards, and confounding data reporting standards, The Four can both claim we “own our own data” while at the same time ensuring there’ll never be a true market for the information they have about us.

So yes, my idea is easily dismissed. The initial response I’ve had to it is always some variation of: “There’s no way The Four would let this happen.” That’s exactly the kind of biases I refer to above – we assume that The Four control the dialog, that they either will thwart this idea through intensive lobbying, clever terms of service, and soft power, or that the idea is practically impossible because of technical or market limitations. To that I ask….Why?

Why is it impossible for me to tokenize all of my Lyft ride data, and give for free it to an academic project that is mapping the impact of ride sharing on congestion in major cities? Why is it impossible for a small business owner to create an RFP for all OpenTable, Resy, and other dining data, so she can determine the best kind of restaurant to open in her neighborhood? I’m pretty certain she’d pay a few bucks a head for that kind of data – so why can’t I sell that information to her (with a vig back to OpenTable and Resy) if the value exchange is there to be monetized? Why can’t I tokenize and sell my Twitter interactions to a brand (or more likely, an agency or research company) interested in understanding the mind of a father who lives in Manhattan? Why can’t I tokenize and trade my Spotify history for better recommendations on live shows to see, or movies to watch, or books to read? Or, simply give it to a free service that’s sprung up to give me suggestions about new music to check out?

Why can’t an ecosystem of agents, startups, and data brokers emerge, a new industry of information processing not seen since the rise of search optimization in the early aughts, leveraging and arbitraging consumer information to create entirely new kinds of businesses driven by insights currently buried in today’s data monopolies?

Such a world would be fascinating, exciting, sometimes sketchy, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’d be driven by the individual choices of millions of consumers – choosing which agents to trust, which tokens to create, which trades felt fair. There’s be fails, there’d be fraud, there’d be bad actors. But over time, the good would win over the bad, because the decision making is distributed across the entire population of Internet users. In short, we’d push the decision making to the node – to us. Sure, we’d do stupid things. And sure, the hucksters and the hustlers would make short term killings. But I’ll take an open system like this over a closed one any day of the week, especially if the open system is governed by an architecture empowering the individual to make their own decisions.

It’s be a lot like the Internet was once imagined to be.

I’ve been noodling on such an ecosystem, and I’m convinced it could dwarf our current Internet in terms of overall value created (and credit where credit is due, The Four have created a lot of value). It’d run laps around The Four when it comes to innovation – tens of thousands of new companies would form, all of them feeding off the newly liberated oxygen of high quality, structured, machine readable data. Trusted independent platforms for value exchange would arise. Independent third party agents would munge tokens from competing services, verifying claims and earning the trust of consumers (will Walmart really save you a thousand bucks a year?! We can prove it, or not!). Huge platforms would develop for the processing, securitization, permissioning, and validation of our data. Man, it’d feel like…well, like the recumbent, boring old Internet was finally exciting again.

There’s no technical reason why this world doesn’t exist. The progenitors of the Web have already imagined it, heck, Tim Berners Lee recently announced he’s working pretty much full time on creating a system devoted to the foundational elements needed for it to blossom.

But until we as a society write machine-readable data portability into law, such efforts will be relegated to interesting side shows. And more likely than not, we’ll spend the next few years arguing about breaking up The Four, and let’s be honest, that’s an argument The Four want us to have, because they’re going to win it (more money, better lawyers, etc. etc.). Instead, we should  just require them – and all other data services of scale – to free the data they’ve so far managed to imprison. One simple new law could change all of that. Shouldn’t we consider it?

*In another post, I’ll explore this example in detail. It’s really, really fascinating. 

Cross posted from Searchblog