The tangled web we weave around the concentrated power of Big Tech

8 Jul 2019271 Views

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Image: © Oleg Kozlov/Stock.adobe.com

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The concentration of power in online services and infrastructure can be keenly felt when an outage hits. Elaine Burke asks: what happens when they become more powerful?

Had any online issues in the past few weeks? You wouldn’t be alone.

Misrouting of traffic, a bad software deployment from Cloudflare, and concurrent outages over at Facebook and Twitter saw many people briefly cut off from their most-used online services.

When a major platform goes down, it can feel like a whole internet meltdown. Facebook downtime, for example, can not only impact any of 1.56bn daily active users of Facebook itself, but Instagram and WhatsApp’s millions can also suffer their parent company’s faults.

Then there’s the infrastructure through which we access online services. Cloudflare provides DDoS protection and a stable content delivery network to more than one-third of the market, amounting to more than 12m websites using its services.

Cloudflare’s nearest competitor is CloudFront with a market share nearing 30pc. CloudFront is just one part of Amazon Web Services, another significant provider of internet infrastructure largely invisible to most end users. As well as being a colossal e-commerce giant, Amazon provides the internet backbone that keeps Netflix, Adobe, Slack and many more up and running.

Is life without Big Tech possible?

If you wanted to break up with Big Tech, you might have the choice not to use Facebook-owned platforms or Apple-owned products and services, but could you operate online without Amazon? Tech journalist Kashmir Hill tried earlier this year. Using a custom-made VPN, she found herself locked out of more than 23m IP addresses, yet that still didn’t cover AWS’s vast reach. Ultimately, she said, “We found Amazon was too huge to conquer.”

Hill also tried life without Google for a week. That’s the world’s preferred search engine, browser, email provider, mobile operating system and mapping service gone, not to mention much of the advertising and analytics that makes professionally produced content on the internet viable, and even more invisible cloud services to try and avoid. For Hill, going online without Google “screwed up everything”.

The fact is, we rely heavily on Big Tech’s platforms, services and infrastructure for much of our day-to-day operations. And when one of these systems fails, or even falters, the impact is sharp and widespread.

Breaking up is hard to do

So, if we can’t break up with Big Tech, how about breaking up Big Tech itself?

Calls for a Big Tech break-up have amplified in the US, particularly with Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential hopeful, making it part of her campaign. Investigations have been split between the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, but renowned tech business analyst Ben Thompson neatly summarised the struggle they will have bringing antitrust rulings against Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook.

In the case of Facebook, legislation already failed in allowing the world’s biggest social media platform to buy out two major competitors: WhatsApp and Instagram. And if Facebook soon successfully integrates these platforms with Messenger, as is expected, that will make a forced separation far more difficult in future.

The Big Four are the particular focus of antitrust investigations because their market value has grown larger than some countries’ GDP and they wield a colossal influence over what we read, watch, buy and discover online. And at least one of them isn’t even trying to hide its ambitions to be more than just a business. With the ambitious proposal of its own cryptocurrency, Facebook begins to look more like a nation state than a tech company.

Concentration of power

If we privileged users with broadband and smartphones and alternative options can be frustrated by the failure of our trusted tech staples, imagine the difficulty of users whose options are limited.

In developing countries, tech companies have eagerly moved to create customers out of citizens on the wrong side of the digital divide. I can scoff at Libra from a vantage point that sees a range of digital banking and payments services allowing me to send money as easily as a GIF, but unbanked people outside the safety net of financial inclusion don’t have that privilege of choice.

What happens if 1.7bn unbanked people bet their financial empowerment on a currency led by Mark Zuckerberg? Yes, the Libra currency will be led by the collective of the Libra Association, but the Calibra wallet due to be integrated with Messenger and WhatsApp will duly give Facebook control over the majority of Libra users. Zuckerberg and his majority rule at Facebook will effectively hold the keys to the vault.

We have made incredibly powerful multinational companies responsible for the upkeep of online activity at the same pace that online activity has become central to many aspects of life. It’s one thing when you can’t see a nice Instagram shot because Facebook suffered a blip, but what if that malfunction means your money is cut off?

We have built a tangled web with myriad threads knotted around a small cohort of companies. But unpicking them could leave us with an even bigger mess – disconnected and insufficiently supported.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com