We Need Alternatives to Big Tech. These Decentralized Tools Might Be The Answer.
Jan. 12, 2021
Amid the spectacle of the election cycle and surging COVID-19 cases over the past six months, there have also been a few notable events in the world of online platform competition. Federal and state officials have conducted antitrust investigations, issued reports, and even filed a number of lawsuits just in the past few months. Lawsuits and legislation are crucial tools for addressing online platform competition, but it is also important to consider the availability of alternatives to the predominant services. Without the existence or possibility of alternatives, particularly ones that derive from a different business model, consumers may end up no better off even after the most comprehensive of remedies. Decentralized tools—those that aren’t controlled by a singular corporate entity and operate without relying on one company’s servers, and yet provide a similar (or even better) service—are key to providing those alternatives.
Just the highlights of the past six months in platform competition policy are enough to exhaust the determined tech policy marathoner. In October, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee released their Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, a 450 page exhaustive exploration of online platforms, how they use their power to deter competitors, and recommendations for improving regulatory control over the industry. Among the excellent suggestions was a section on the importance of data portability and interoperability; topics that we’ve been focused on here at OTI for years. The House report is a huge contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of online platforms in our society and their effects on our everyday lives.
No less impactfully, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Google for violations of competition law related to their Search product, and in particular with regard to the Android mobile platform. While questions exist about potential political motivations behind the suit’s timing, the DOJ’s filing is nonetheless an important move and Google has engaged in a number of practices that deserve competition investigation. The federal government is joined in suing Google by two different coalitions of states, and Facebook has taken its own turn as an antitrust defendant in a suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission and 46 state Attorneys General as well. Just about everyone in this space will be watching how all these cases proceed.
These are great steps in seeking to rein in anti-competitive behavior, and competition regulation is clearly needed in the online platform market. Regulation alone, however, is limited in its effectiveness. Even if the government went as far as breaking up an online platform, the same incentives that led to that platform’s dominance in the first place would be likely to lead to a similar company stepping in to take its place. Without better alternatives for consumers to turn to, regulation is simply insufficient.
The last major tech antitrust case is a good example. The federal government brought suit against Microsoft in 2001, alleging that it was using Windows’ dominance in the PC market to force their web browser, Internet Explorer, on users. At the time when the parties entered a settlement that, among other remedies, forced Microsoft to sever the strong connection between Internet Explorer and Windows, the Firefox browser was available. This gave people an alternative to turn to once they were less tied down to IE. And that’s what they did; IE peaked in popularity within a couple of years after the Microsoft court case was settled. After that it shed users consistently, first to Firefox and eventually to a variety of browsers that came after, including Chrome, Safari, and Opera.
For antitrust enforcement and regulation to really be effective, we as a society have to have alternatives. The dominant business model of today’s online services relies on advertising, particularly ads that are precisely targeted to users by sophisticated algorithms that rely on privacy-invasive data collection.Taking on platforms’ anticompetitive practices will not be sufficient to protect consumers if new competitors arise based on this same model: vertically integrated, “free” services, which lock in consumers and monetize their data. In that situation, most of us will have gained very little. To create real change, the alternatives available need to be decentralized, so that many different services exist and single companies can’t exert outsized influence over our communications and our society writ large. They should also be interoperable, so that the service a person chooses doesn’t leave them disconnected from their friends and family elsewhere.
Developing true alternatives to the dominant business model will create a number of benefits for the health of the open internet and for societies everywhere. First, it will provide better privacy for users and give them more control and agency over their online experience. People can make the decision to share what they want only with whom they want. Also, the prevalent “targeted advertising” model entails platforms essentially selling access to consumer eyeballs, making “engagement” (essentially, how long we all spend staring at our feeds) the golden metric. Today’s platforms rely on automated tools to push content onto people’s screens that is likely to provoke a strong reaction. Anger and disagreement are sure winners. Real alternatives to the dominant services and those incentives will undercut the engagement-at-all-cost approach to business development and the harms that can come from it, such as optimizing for anger, radicalization, and harassment. Finally, from an economic perspective, alternatives that connect people directly to one another can disrupt services that were only acting as unneeded intermediaries and rent seekers. Huge online services that are using up computing power and bandwidth to simply relay messages from one user to another can be eliminated as inefficiencies with the right tools.
Fortunately, there are tools that can provide the online experiences people love while avoiding the pitfalls of the current crop of major online platforms. OTI recently held an event to highlight some of those tools, and I thought it would be worthwhile discussing them here, and raising up some others that we didn’t have time to get to in the event.
One tool that was shown off during our event was Beaker Browser. Paul Frazee, co-founder of the Beaker Browser, walked through how it works and what it enables. This great tool is an alternative to the web browser you use everyday that integrates the innovative hypercore technology (a tool for verifiably exchanging data over the internet without the need for servers in the middle to host it). Beaker then builds a variety of recognizable social media-type interactions on top of that protocol, and bundles the whole thing up in a familiar and easy-to-use box.
In short, Beaker is a web browser just like Firefox and Chrome (and indeed, is built on top of the open source version of Chrome called Chromium) that can make use of the hypercore protocol in addition to the normal http and https protocols that browsers usually speak. Hypercore is a method for sharing data between people without needing a server to keep it on. Everything is transmitted directly from the creator to the viewer. If someone isn’t online when a request for something they’ve published is made, others, such as friends or family, can help host the content and relay it. Cryptography also guarantees the authenticity of whatever is transmitted.
Beaker and hypercore together open up a variety of new possibilities for the web. First, they lower the barriers to publishing a web page to near zero. It is as simple as clicking “New Hyperdrive” from the main menu and starting to type HTML (yes, right in the browser) or choosing a folder from your hard drive. Your new site gets a random string of letters and numbers assigned to it, which you can copy and paste to share with others, or associate with a domain name, if you own one. Click “Save,” and your site is published.
For example, when you start Beaker for the first time, you create a profile, just as you would when joining a social media service. Doing so creates your first hyperdrive, populated with a few files. You can then visit another page (entertainingly called “Blahbity-blog”) which is, itself, a micro-blogging service. If you give that page the permission to write to a folder in your drive, it will begin filling it with whatever you type into a text box. You will also see posts from anyone else that your profile is following, because the script on the page is reaching out to each of their hyperdrives to download their latest updates as well.
That may all sound complicated, but Beaker does an incredible job of hiding the technical details unless the user wants to go looking for them. The experience is smooth and intuitive. Beaker Browser just reached its 1.0 release, so now is a great time to check it out.
The other tool that we demoed at our event was Matrix, an open protocol for federated communications. (Editor’s note: the author serves as a member of the board of directors of the non-profit that stewards the Matrix specification). That means that users can choose a server where they want to have their account, and can message users at any other server just as easily as those on their own. It's just like email in that way, but for one-on-one and group chats. It also builds in end-to-end encryption by default.
Because Matrix is an open protocol, there are a number of client applications that are made to work with it. Some are focused on a group collaboration experience, aiming for a style similar to Slack, Zulip, or Microsoft’s Teams. Others tend toward more of an individual instant messenger style, looking more like WhatsApp or iMessage. The “flagship” client, Element, blends both approaches for a general purpose application.
Another important aspect of Matrix is its stated goal to interoperate with every other messaging service that it possibly can. Called “bridges,” they make it possible to communicate with other services from within Matrix, often completely seamlessly. Bridges exist for popular services such as Slack, iMessage, Discord, and WhatsApp, as well as some other interesting applications such as the syndication protocol RSS, email, and SMS. This ability to bridge into many other platforms gives Matrix the possibility to become a central clearinghouse for people who don’t want to have to remember which of the many different chat apps on their phones is the one that their aunt uses. It’s also in some cases a great example of what some call “adverse interoperability,” where one service makes use of the APIs that exist for another service’s client to operate in order to interoperate with that service.
And So Much More
These are just two examples of the exciting and useful decentralized tools that are out there. They are easy and enjoyable to use, and stand as alternatives both to the base functionality of the major platforms as well as to their overarching business model. There are many others: IPFS is a protocol similar in some ways to Hypercore, which enables peer-to-peer distribution of data sets such as websites. Ink and Switch is an “industrial research lab” that develops digital tools for creative and collaborative work, and which has published an interesting paper on “local-first” distributed tools. LibreRouter is an organization designing and deploying wireless network hardware that is open source (both hardware and software), creates wireless meshes to extend internet service over rough terrain, and is being used to connect remote villages in Colombia, Argentina, and elsewhere.
These projects and others like them are paving the way to a future where the only way to communicate and share with our friends and families isn’t just Big Company A or Big Company B. Fostering these alternatives and helping them grow is a crucial companion to any regulatory solution to the problem of anti-competitive online platforms.