Tag Archives: internet competition

Facebook Denizens Unite! the right to privacy and big tech

The European Union’s (EU) approach to regulating the big tech companies draws on its members’ cultures tend to protect individual privacy. The other uses the eu’s legal powers to boost competition.  The first leads to the assertion that you have sovereignty over data about you: you should have the right to access them, amend them and determine who can use them. This is the essence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), whose principles are already being copied by many countries across the world. The next step is to allow interoperability between services, so that users can easily switch between providers, shifting to firms that offer better financial terms or treat customers more ethically. (Imagine if you could move all your friends and posts to Acebook, a firm with higher privacy standards than Facebook and which gave you a cut of its advertising revenues.)

Europe’s second principle is that firms cannot lock out competition. That means equal treatment for rivals who use their platforms. The EU has blocked Google from competing unfairly with shopping sites that appear in its search results or with rival browsers that use its Android operating system. A German proposal says that a dominant firm must share bulk, anonymised data with competitors, so that the economy can function properly instead of being ruled by a few data-hoarding giants. (For example, all transport firms should have access to Uber’s information about traffic patterns.) Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants buying up scores of startups that might one day pose a threat.

Ms Vestager has explained, popular services like Facebook use their customers as part of the “production machinery”. …The logical step beyond limiting the accrual of data is demanding their disbursement. If tech companies are dominant by virtue of their data troves, competition authorities working with privacy regulators may feel justified in demanding they share those data, either with the people who generate them or with other companies in the market. That could whittle away a big chunk of what makes big tech so valuable, both because Europe is a large market, and because regulators elsewhere may see Europe’s actions as a model to copy. It could also open up new paths to innovation.

In recent decades, American antitrust policy has been dominated by free-marketeers of the so-called Chicago School, deeply sceptical of the government’s role in any but the most egregious cases. Dominant firms are frequently left unmolested in the belief they will soon lose their perch anyway…By contrast, “Europe is philosophically more sceptical of firms that have market power.” ..

Tech lobbyists in Brussels worry that Ms Vestager agrees with those who believe that their data empires make Google and its like natural monopolies, in that no one else can replicate Google’s knowledge of what users have searched for, or Amazon’s of what they have bought. She sent shivers through the business in January when she compared such companies to water and electricity utilities, which because of their irreproducible networks of pipes and power lines are stringently regulated….

The idea is for consumers to be able to move data about their Google searches, Amazon purchasing history or Uber rides to a rival service. So, for example, social-media users could post messages to Facebook from other platforms with approaches to privacy that they prefer…

Excerpts from Why Big Tech Should Fear Europe, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019; The Power of Privacy, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019

American Oligarchs

Warren Buffett, the 21st century’s best-known investor, extols firms that have a “moat” around them—a barrier that offers stability and pricing power.One way American firms have improved their moats in recent times is through creeping consolidation. The Economist has divided the economy into 900-odd sectors covered by America’s five-yearly economic census. Two-thirds of them became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 (see charts 2 and 3). The weighted average share of the top four firms in each sector has risen from 26% to 32%…

These data make it possible to distinguish between sectors of the economy that are fragmented, concentrated or oligopolistic, and to look at how revenues have fared in each case. Revenues in fragmented industries—those in which the biggest four firms together control less than a third of the market—dropped from 72% of the total in 1997 to 58% in 2012. Concentrated industries, in which the top four firms control between a third and two-thirds of the market, have seen their share of revenues rise from 24% to 33%. And just under a tenth of the activity takes place in industries in which the top four firms control two-thirds or more of sales. This oligopolistic corner of the economy includes niche concerns—dog food, batteries and coffins—but also telecoms, pharmacies and credit cards.

The ability of big firms to influence and navigate an ever-expanding rule book may explain why the rate of small-company creation in America is close to its lowest mark since the 1970s … Small firms normally lack both the working capital needed to deal with red tape and long court cases, and the lobbying power that would bend rules to their purposes….

Another factor that may have made profits stickier is the growing clout of giant institutional shareholders such as BlackRock, State Street and Capital Group. Together they own 10-20% of most American companies, including ones that compete with each other. Claims that they rig things seem far-fetched, particularly since many of these funds are index trackers; their decisions as to what to buy and sell are made for them. But they may well set the tone, for example by demanding that chief executives remain disciplined about pricing and restraining investment in new capacity. The overall effect could mute competition.

The cable television industry has become more tightly controlled, and many Americans rely on a monopoly provider; prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past five years. Consolidation in one of Mr Buffett’s favourite industries, railroads, has seen freight prices rise by 40% in real terms and returns on capital almost double since 2004. The proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont, announced last December, illustrates the trend to concentration. //

Roughly another quarter of abnormal profits comes from the health-care industry, where a cohort of pharmaceutical and medical-equipment firms make aggregate returns on capital of 20-50%. The industry is riddled with special interests and is governed by patent rules that allow firms temporary monopolies on innovative new drugs and inventions. Much of health-care purchasing in America is ultimately controlled by insurance firms. Four of the largest, Anthem, Cigna, Aetna and Humana, are planning to merge into two larger firms.

The rest of the abnormal profits are to be found in the technology sector, where firms such as Google and Facebook enjoy market shares of 40% or more

But many of these arguments can be spun the other way. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon are not being valued by investors as if they are high risk, but as if their market shares are sustainable and their network effects and accumulation of data will eventually allow them to reap monopoly-style profits. (Alphabet is now among the biggest lobbyists of any firm, spending $17m last year.)…

Perhaps antitrust regulators will act, forcing profits down. The relevant responsibilities are mostly divided between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), although some …[But]Lots of important subjects are beyond their purview. They cannot consider whether the length and security of patents is excessive in an age when intellectual property is so important. They may not dwell deeply on whether the business model of large technology platforms such as Google has a long-term dependence on the monopoly rents that could come from its vast and irreproducible stash of data. They can only touch upon whether outlandishly large institutional shareholders with positions in almost all firms can implicitly guide them not to compete head on; or on why small firms seem to be struggling. Their purpose is to police illegal conduct, not reimagine the world. They lack scope.

Nowhere has the alternative approach been articulated. It would aim to unleash a burst of competition to shake up the comfortable incumbents of America Inc. It would involve a serious effort to remove the red tape and occupational-licensing schemes that strangle small businesses and deter new entrants. It would examine a loosening of the rules that give too much protection to some intellectual-property rights. It would involve more active, albeit cruder, antitrust actions. It would start a more serious conversation about whether it makes sense to have most of the country’s data in the hands of a few very large firms. It would revisit the entire issue of corporate lobbying, which has become a key mechanism by which incumbent firms protect themselves.

Excerpts from Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016, at 23

Nationalizing the Internet

Seeking to cut dependence on companies such as Google, Microsoft, and LinkedIn, Putin in recent years has urged the creation of domestic versions of everything from operating systems and e-mail to microchips and payment processing. Putin’s government says Russia needs protection from U.S. sanctions, bugs, and any backdoors built into hardware or software. “It’s a matter of national security,” says Andrey Chernogorov, executive secretary of the State Duma’s commission on strategic information systems. “Not replacing foreign IT would be equivalent to dismissing the army.”

Since last year, Russia has required foreign internet companies to store Russian clients’ data on servers in the country. In January 2016 the Kremlin ordered government agencies to use programs for office applications, database management, and cloud storage from an approved list of Russian suppliers or explain why they can’t—a blow to Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle. Google last year was ordered to allow Android phone makers to offer a Russian search engine. All four U.S. companies declined to comment.

And a state-backed group called the Institute of Internet Development is holding a public contest for a messenger service to compete with text and voice apps like WhatsApp and Viber. Russia’s Security Council has criticized the use of those services by state employees over concerns that U.S. spies could monitor the encrypted communications while Russian agencies can’t,,

On Nov. 10, 2016, Russia’s communications watchdog said LinkedIn would be blocked for not following the data-storage rules….. That same day, the Communications Ministry published draft legislation that would create a state-controlled body to monitor .ru domains and associated IP addresses. The proposal would also mandate that Russian internet infrastructure be owned by local companies and that cross-border communication lines be operated only by carriers subject to Russian regulation…

The biggest effect of the Kremlin’s internet campaign can be seen in the Moscow city administration, which is testing Russian-made e-mail and calendar software MyOffice Mail on 6,000 machines at City Hall. The city aims to replace Microsoft Outlook with the homegrown alternative, from Moscow-based New Cloud Technologies, on as many as 600,000 computers in schools, hospitals, and local agencies….“Money from Russian taxpayers and state-controlled companies should be spent primarily on domestic software,” Communications Minister Nikolay Nikiforov told reporters in September. “It’s a matter of jobs, of information security, and of our strategic leadership in IT.”

Excerpts from Microsoft Isn’t Feeling Any Russian Thaw, Bloomberg, Nov. 17, 2016

Facebook Grabs Land: India

And then there’s Free Basics, the two-year-old project Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has called an online 911. In about three dozen developing countries so far, Free Basics—also known as Internet.org—includes a stripped-down version of Facebook and a handful of sites that provide news, weather, nearby health-care options, and other info. One or two carriers in a given country offer the package for free at slow speeds, betting that it will help attract new customers who’ll later upgrade to pricier data plans…

Facebook says Free Basics is meant to make the world more open and connected, not to boost the company’s growth….On Dec. 21, 2016,  the Indian government suspended the program, offered in the country by carrier Reliance Communications….“Who could possibly be against this?”

Opponents, including some journalists and businesspeople, say Free Basics is dangerous because it fundamentally changes the online economy. If companies are allowed to buy preferential treatment from carriers, the Internet is no longer a level playing field, says Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Indian mobile-payment company Paytm....“We don’t see Free Basics as philanthropy. We see it as a land grab,” says Pahwa.

[On Feb. 8, 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled against Facebook’s scheme.]

Adi Narayan, Facebook’s Fight to Be Free, Bloomberg Business Week, Jan. 14, 2016

The Nationalization of Internet

The Swiss government has ordered tighter security for its own computer and telephone systems that could block foreign companies from key technology and communications contracts.  The governing Federal Council’s decision Wednesday cited concerns about foreign spies targeting Switzerland.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who worked for the CIA at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva from 2007 to 2009, has released documents indicating that large American and British IT companies cooperated with those countries’ intelligence services.According to a Swiss government statement, contracts for critical IT infrastructure will “where possible, only be given to companies that act exclusively according to Swiss law, where a majority of the ownership is in Switzerland and which provides all of its services from within Switzerland’s borders.”

Swiss govt tightens tech security over NSA spying, Associated Press, Feb. 5, 2014

The Rape of Europe by Internet Giants: tax avoiding, data mining

The raid by the European Commission’s antitrust gumshoes this month on Orange (formerly France Telecom), Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica of Spain seemed to come out of the blue. The companies professed a surprise verging on stupefaction. Even some Brussels insiders were caught on the hop.  Naming no names, the commission said the inquiry involved internet connectivity. The question is whether entrenched telecoms firms are abusing their strength in the market for internet traffic to deny video-streaming websites and other content providers full access to their networks to reach consumers. Besides the content providers themselves, the other potential plaintiffs are the “wholesalers” that the content providers use to ship their data across borders (and usually the Atlantic). These rely on incumbent internet-service providers (ISPs) such as Orange to take the data the last bit of the way to subscribers’ screens and mobiles.

All eyes turned to Cogent Communications, an American wholesaler which handles data for the likes of YouTube. Cogent has complained, fruitlessly, to French and German regulators that their former monopolies were asking too much to handle data, and throttling the flow to consumers when bigger fees were not forthcoming. It is appealing against the French decision.  In theory Orange and the other network providers might simply pass on to their customers the cost of all their streaming and downloading… But Europe’s market is fiercely competitive; and regulators place all sorts of constraints on how networks can charge for their services, while haranguing them to invest in new technology and new capacity to keep up with rising traffic. Though there are similar spats in America (for instance between Cogent and Verizon, a big network operator), it looks to some Europeans like another example of the rape of the old continent by America’s data-mining, tax-avoiding internet giants.

The broader issue—and the reason, perhaps, why the antitrust watchdogs chose to weigh in—is that Europe is on the brink of big regulatory change. A draft law to be published in September will subtly alter the principle of “net neutrality”, the idea that companies which own the infrastructure cannot give priority to some traffic (eg, from their own websites) over that of others.;”

Internet access: Congestion on the line, Economist, July 20, 2013