Thursday, March 10, 2022

Big Tech Tyranny?

Cory Doctorow's March LOCUS column discusses tech tycoons from the perspective of monopoly and world domination. Well, that phrase may be a bit exaggerated but not totally inapplicable, considering his term "commercial tyrant":

Vertically Challenged

Is meritocracy a "delusion"? Are people such as Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) unique geniuses, or did they just get lucky? One might maintain that some sort of genius is required to recognize opportunities and take advantage of the "luck," but that's beside Doctorow's point. He argues against "vertical integration" and in favor of "structural separation." Fundamental antitrust principles should forbid mega-corporations from competing with the companies to which they sell services. "Amazon could offer virtual shelf space to merchants, or it could compete with those merchants by making its own goods, but not both. Apple could have an app store, or it could make apps, but not both."

It's easy to see his point. It would be better if Google could somehow be prevented from giving preference in search results to entities in which it has a financial interest. On the other hand, more ambiguous "liminal" cases exist, a point Doctorow himself does acknowledge. For example, "Amazon might say it gives preferential search results to businesses that use its warehouses because it can be sure that those items will be delivered more efficiently and reliably, but it also benefits every time it makes that call." Granting the second half of that sentence, I'm still not sure this practice is a bad thing. Given a choice between two identical products of equal price, I DO tend to choose the one labeled "Fulfilled by Amazon" for that very reliability, as well as speed of delivery. As for splitting off Amazon's publishing services, as he advocates, I'd be dubious. I like the way Kindle self-publishing currently works.

Doctorow also brings up problems that may require "structural integration" rather than separation, to prevent Big Tech from evading its legitimate responsibilities. He tentatively calls for "a requirement that the business functions that harm the rest of us when they go wrong be kept in-house, so that the liabilities from mismanaging those operations end up where they belong." Is there a simple answer to the dilemma of maintaining the conveniences we enjoy while preventing the abuses?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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