‘I can no longer support Facebook,” my friend’s post read. “Between the privacy scandals and taking Russian money to influence the 2016 election, this site is bad for democracy. I’ll see you guys on Instagram.”
But there’s one small problem. Facebook owns its former competitor, Instagram — which has over 1 billion users worldwide. It has also acquired What’s App, Oculus, ConnectU, and over 70 other companies. If you’re frustrated with Facebook’s policies related to privacy, you have almost nowhere to go. This isn’t a problem limited to Facebook users. Competition in the American tech sector is being gobbled up by the largest players, and it’s threatening our entire industry.
I’ve spent a career working in tech as a software engineer. And I believe regulated markets are the best way to build and deliver innovative products. That might sound counterintuitive. But increasingly, the largest players in the game aren’t playing by the same rules. Instead, they’re using their power to bully or buy out the competition.
That’s why I was thrilled last week when Senator Elizabeth Warren put forward a bold plan to break up the largest tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. Many parts of the plan are strong and have widespread support by industry experts, such as breaking up Facebook and Instagram. Other parts inadvertently jeopardize privacy and increase consumer risk of malware and spyware. Overall, it’s a strong start to an antitrust conversation that is long overdue.
The stronger parts of Warren’s plan deal with blatantly anticompetitive behavior by our tech giants. Recently, Google was fined $2.7 billion by the European Union for anticompetitive behavior with its search engine.
If a seller wants their product to enjoy high ranking in Google’s search engine, you need to pay to play. When competitors found ways to showcase goods excluding Google, it threatened their ad revenue. The EU fined Google for erasing their competitors from search results. It’s notable that although Google is based in America, it’s the E.U. that’s led the way in prosecuting anti-competitive behavior and protecting consumer privacy.
Where I diverge from Warren is her prioritization of competition over cybersecurity and privacy. In an interview with Nilay Patel of The Verge, Warren argued that the Apple App Store needs to be separated from Apple hardware division. Warren’s reasoning was “either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.”
This position would have unintended consequences, because it makes iOS devices far more vulnerable to spyware, malware, and even ransomware. Apple’s control of the App Store allows it to reject many types of malicious software that would steal users’ information.
One of Facebook’s 2018 scandals was the revelation it had been stealing information on who you called and text messaged, both actions taking place outside of Facebook services. Android users were affected by this theft while iOS users were not. That consumer protection would not have existed without the strict rules and sandboxing of the App Store.
That said, Warren is correct that Apple can wield the power of the App Store in anticompetitive ways. Apple TV users were not able to use their device to watch Amazon Prime Video until December of 2017, which locked users into buying movie and TV content on iTunes. In a patently anticonsumer move, Amazon retaliated by refusing to sell Apple TV in the world’s largest online marketplace. These kinds of indefensible actions should be met with fierce scrutiny by American regulators.
When I was a teenager, the most valuable American companies were in finance and manufacturing. Today, the world’s most valuable companies tend to be tech. The crown jewels of the economy are no longer companies like Lehman Brothers, but rather Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, and Microsoft.
Countries like Russia, Ireland, and France are gunning for Silicon Valley and missing, because it’s hard to replicate the American spirit. To quote novelist James Clavell in 1962, “You got something to do, you do it. That’s American style.” We don’t ask for permission, we’re willing to bring in talent from around the globe, and we are fearless when taking on titans.
Which is why the tech industry is worth fiercely protecting, even from its most self-destructive impulses. Senator Warren is right; we need a tech industry where new companies can take on Amazon, Google, or Facebook and succeed or fail on the worth of their product. Without competition, Silicon Valley will stop taking risks and will stop innovating. Tech is too important, too fundamentally American, to let it destroy itself.
Brianna Wu is a software engineer in Dedham. She is a candidate for the Eighth District in US Congress in 2020.