The influence of internet giants like Facebook and Google on our society has been debated for some time. After sustained criticism, various large technology companies have hastily taken steps that until recently seemed unthinkable. Reddit, Youtube, Twitch, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook have implemented new measures in the past weeks to combat hate messages and fake news. These changes are a clear sign that unregulated web politics are a thing of the past. The heated public debate goes beyond the structural inadequacy of the online economy, however, to the loss of control by users over their own data.
In the early days of the Internet, computers were directly connected to each other. Data was saved on its own hard drives. At the beginning of the new century, digital communication changed to a centralized system in which information and servers are stored and exchanged via the servers and platforms of a few technology companies. Billions of people are dependent on some market leaders for the exchange of information. With the current business model, these companies have complete control over our data. This has led to market distortion and a lack of competition.
The current market leaders do everything possible to maintain their power
In principle, centralization does not have to be a problem. There are good reasons to connect people on a single platform. A navigation app like Waze uses extremely large amounts of data and offers extensive functions. As a user, you sometimes want the simplest and most reliable option. That changes, however, when we can no longer freely decide which platform we want to use, as in the case of social networks.
The current market leaders are doing everything possible to maintain their power and prevent the introduction of new social media platforms. Switching the network is practically impossible because we cannot take our messages, photos and contacts with us to another platform. We not only have no control over our own data. Communication from one network to another is also excluded. This is actually unfair competition. This is a problem for both new players planning to enter the market and users.
Why is it possible, for example, to keep a telephone number when changing providers, but not to call up our data for use in another app? Just as we can call friends who are with another telephone provider, we should be able to communicate with each other regardless of the communication app installed.
The corporations that are now dominating the market have no reason to change their platforms. Has Facebook ever really improved its newsfeed for the benefit of its users in the last decade? If so, only to get more control. As long as our data is locked up with these companies, they will continue to hesitate to address data protection issues or ethical concerns such as fake news appropriately. Because new initiatives that, in contrast to the established ones, take into account the political effects of their platform or do not use user data for advertising purposes, do not have the slightest chance of survival in the current market.
Washington is battling the digital giant with 20th century antitrust law
In order to correct the resulting power imbalance, we have to retrieve our data. Together with the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, I am working on digital data vaults that will make it possible to store our data securely and to share information with contacts who use another platform. These types of solutions will not only protect us from major data leaks. Innovations from independent app developers will also be possible again.
Meanwhile, criticism of dominant technology companies continues to grow. Despite new adjustments to the guidelines, structural problems are not adequately addressed. Political advertising is still not transparent. Fake news can still be spread. Filter bubbles provide more polarization than ever before. However, if we are to find solutions to these problems, the decentralization of the Internet is required. Ultimately, it is not a single social network that is the cause of the core problem, but the hyper-centralization of data and users, and consequently of power. The first step to finding a solution is to give everyone control over their own data.
Last Wednesday, US Congress interrogated Mark Zuckerberg in a potentially historic antitrust suit. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Apple also had to justify themselves because of the problematic effects of their market dominance. While solving these problems requires a different approach for each company, it is clear that it is time for a paradigm shift. Will we as a society see the Internet as a common good again, which should consequently be open and free, or will we put the future of our digital life in the hands of less data-rich corporations?
Unfortunately, legislators have focused too much on the merger and acquisition strategies and not enough that users cannot control their data. Washington applies 20th century antitrust law to the digital market. Much of the political debate is driven by proposals to break up the conglomerates of technology companies. The key question is overlooked: Who should control our digital information? The most efficient way to stimulate competition and create fair conditions would be to give users back their right to control this data.
The author works at the IMEC research center in Leuven, Belgium, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as a professor of web technology at the University of Ghent.