Why it’s simpler to maneuver nation than swap social media
It was a momentous and difficult decision for my grandmother Valentina Rachman to leave the USSR. Her way across Europe to a camp in Germany and from there to a ship for displaced persons in Canada meant an enormous danger – including being almost burned in an anti-Semitic arson attack in Poland – and then starting over in a new country, in where she was had few contacts and could not speak the language.
But even after learning English and settling herself and her family in Toronto, she continued to pay a price to leave: she was completely cut off from her mother, brother, cousins, and other Leningrad families. She didn’t even know if they were alive. It took a decade before her phone rang and my father told his mother “Mom!” Heard screaming. for the first time.
I moved from Toronto to San Francisco to London to Los Angeles. Moving has gotten easier every time. When I left London five years ago, I was sending my books, my clothes – even my gadgets! (I bought voltage adapters.) I have a weekly video conference on Saturdays with my in-laws in London and Wales and every Sunday with the group from Toronto. If I change my mind, I can always go back.
When we talk about social media monopolies, we focus too much on network effects and not enough on switching costs. Yes, it’s true that all of your friends are already stuck in a big tech silo that doesn’t talk to any of the other big tech silos. It doesn’t have to be that way: Interoperable platforms have existed since the first two Arpanet nodes went into operation. You can call anyone with a phone number and email anyone with an email address.
The reason you can’t talk to Facebook users without having a Facebook account isn’t because it’s technically impossible – it’s because Facebook prohibits it. Additionally, Facebook (and its big tech competitors) have the law on their side: the once-common practice of making new products that only work with existing ones (e.g., third-party printer ink or a Mac program that reads Microsoft Office may) files or an emulator that can play old games has been endangered by Big Tech. They were okay with this type of “competitive compatibility” when it benefited from it, but now that they dominate the digital world, it’s time for it to die.
New proposals from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, as well as the EU’s Digital Services and Digital Markets Act and the US ACCESS Act of 2020, all provide for some sort of interoperability mandate that forces the dominant platforms to open the APIs for which they are already in use Let different parts of your own business talk to each other. These mandates are great ground for interoperability, but they can’t be the ceiling. That’s because they are easy for large corporations to undermine: if a legislature forces you to open a particular conduit to your competition, you can respond by removing all interesting data from that conduit. You still provide a jack for competitors to hook up to, but you’ve moved all the essentials to a different jack.
But a new balance emerges with both mandates and competitiveness. A tech giant refining its mandated interfaces will not send the upstarts who relied on packing, but instead embarks on a costly and chaotic arms race in which these competitors use scrapers, bots, and other tools to maintain the connection between their users and the hostages of the dominant platform.
Big tech companies (with the exception of Twitter) have objected to this. If we don’t get a veto over who connects to our services and how, they say, how are we going to protect the privacy of these users? You will not. And they don’t. The rules that determine when someone is abusing your privacy should come from democratic considerations: from laws and regulations. How your data may and may not be used is too important to be left to the whims of technical executives.
2.6 billion people are trapped in Facebook’s walled garden, and that means you may submit to being trapped next to them. These are network effects. Once there you may hate it, but you still stick with it because you don’t want to leave your friends.
Network effects are the reason my grandmother’s family stayed behind in the USSR. Low conversion costs are the reason I was able to move freely around the world and move to places that looked like I could thrive.
Network effects are a big deal, but it’s the cost of conversion that really matters. Facebook will tell you that it wants to keep the bad guys out – not the users. Funnily enough, that’s the same thing the East German Politburo claimed about the Berlin Wall: it was there to keep the teeming hordes of the West away from the socialist workers in Paradise, so as not to include the people of East Germany.
Mr. Zuckerberg, tear down this wall.
Cory Doctorow is a journalist, activist, and science fiction writer
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