Thursday, 23 April 2015

“Busting Google for sleazy e-commerce search results is like taking down Al Capone for tax-evasion.”

Writes Cory Doctorow.  Because, he rightly says, Google’s e-commerce sucks.  There’s a bigger problem.

Part of the European anti-trust action against Google alleges that it gave preference to it’s own e-commerce sites in search results to comparison shoppers when that wasn’t necessarily the cheapest option.  That’s a shitty thing for anyone to do, let alone for a company that’s become a tacit backbone of the internet, arguably too big to fail. Too big at any rate for governments to impose restrictions on, say, data collection and use, which would cause them to fail.  Besides, the giants are too useful to governments because of their effortless collection of incredibly personal data.

As Cory points out, we didn’t really expect the internet to be anti-competitive because relatively little capital is required to set up an internet shop.  Somewhat ironically and rather worryingly, startup and operating costs reduce further when there are large players dominating the infrastructure scene.  Cloud computing revolutionised the way business is done but only when it became cheap enough. This required a lot of expense over decades by companies that could afford it so the things that make life easier for customer-facing businesses have tended to make it more difficult for new infrastructure providers to compete.  That kind of homogeneity can be bad for a variety of reasons:

As the internet giants grew, so did states’ interest in their business practices. YouTube was started by three people with a garage, a pile of hard-drives and an unhealthy interest in video. In the years that followed, YouTube has acquiesced to a mounting compliance regime – spending hundreds of millions on its Content ID system for automated copyright enforcement, filling buildings with expensive lawyers and specialists to police obscenity, libel and other potential sources of liability, working out how to comply with the complex legal requirements of different jurisdictions, from the Thai royal family’s insistence on the right to remove videos that criticised the monarchy to the UK government’s insistence on the right to police videos advocating anything it unilaterally characterises as violent Islamism.

All this infrastructure is an additional and possibly unassailable barrier to competition:

One thing is certain: three people in a garage with a pile of hard drives could not disrupt YouTube anymore.

Cory talks about having to spend >£700 on software, accountancy etc. in order to collect £18.76 in VAT to satisfy EU rules.  This kind of thing makes it virtually impossible for small, independent sellers of digital content to compete…. unless they use Amazon.

This is bad news for privacy, too.  The business model of the internet giants is surveillance.  We don’t get to decide – or even to know – what data those giants collect about us or how they use it.  But more importantly, we don’t have a choice.  If there’s one thing we need to do for future generations, it’s to force the pervasive internet giants to treat our privacy as explicitly important and to give us better choices about how to pay for stuff.  It’ll be hard.  And we have to be wary of our data being effectively held to ransom by a premium being charged for private services.  But I think it would be achievable if everyone started to care enough.  If they cared enough about having choices, that is.  I’m not particularly interested in what they choose, as long as they can do it.

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