TL;DR: Two smart antitrust bills with a real chance of passing would A) end the app store chokepoint and B) stop tech giants’ worst anti-competitive behavior without messing up online freedom or privacy, or altering the regulatory landscape for startups. You can help make sure they both pass by taking action here.
Big Tech feels out of control. Websites and apps we used to like are now more ads than content. Popular apps get more addictive each year, and not in a good way. Promising new alternatives get bought by leading players. And as all of this calcifies, tyrants (current or aspiring) are catching up and using the Internet as an anti-democracy weapon.
The worst part is, we know it doesn’t have to be like this. We’ve all experienced some aspect of the Internet that was miraculous and revolutionary, where the Internet made it easier to build wonderful things, come together, change minds, and hold powerful people accountable. So what went so wrong?
A big power shift happened, from Internet users to Big Tech
I’ve been doing online activism for Internet freedom since the early 2000s, as the Internet broke free from the damage of the Microsoft monopoly, through the honeymoon period of 2011/2012 when it seemed like the Internet could do anything, and I’m still fighting today.
My best answer to the question “what went wrong?” is that specific technical shifts—accompanied by a general cluelessness among policymakers on how to apply consumer protection and anti-monopoly laws to tech— let a handful of large companies grab power away from Internet users.
This power shift from Internet users to Big Tech happened on the web
First, policymakers and regulators stood by while the biggest tech companies made their platforms less open to competing products. The Google search results page turned from a clean list of results with some ads on the side into a full page of ads and Google products. Amazon results filled with ads and Amazon’s own products. Facebook made it increasingly difficult for other apps to integrate with Messenger, and so on.
Action from regulators would have been gamechanging because, up until that point, the most promising method for holding tech companies accountable was for volunteer communities to build open source competitors. In the 2000s, this mechanism for making tech companies more accountable had worked fairly well for developer tools and for desktop applications like web browsers (Firefox), video players (VLC), and word processing (OpenOffice). But the free and open source software movement never really figured out how to compete with applications that shared data between users in complex ways. Beyond email, federation had serious disadvantages and for those or other reasons never caught on. And while Web3 aspires to solve this, both its supporters and detractors agree it’s not there yet. We couldn’t rely on the established model of “build an open source competitor” to get us out of the Web 2.0 monopoly mess, so when regulators and policymakers failed to act we began to have a serious problem.
An even bigger power shift from Internet users to Big Tech happened on mobile
An even bigger moment was when regulators stood by and let Apple, and to a much lesser extent Google, control what software could run on mobile devices.
This should never have been allowed to happen, given the experience with Microsoft in the 90s.
By the late 90s it was clear to regulators and observers that the Microsoft operating system monopoly had created atrocious experiences for users and software developers. Microsoft nearly destroyed the web just by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows and pursuing its now-infamous Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish strategy. But when the App Store launched a decade later, Apple was not only bundling iMessage as the default SMS app for iOS, they were making it mandatory by banning all other SMS apps. This was a much more intrusive assertion of power than anything Microsoft had attempted with Windows, and regulators knew how that story ended, so they should have intervened immediately.
(Apple has since banned an MIT app for teaching kids to code, an entire protocol for censorship-resistant file hosting, Bitcoin (until 2014), Fortnite, and the list goes on and on. They also imposed a 30% “tax” on all app revenue, killing millions of small businesses and reducing choice. Google has never asserted the power to prevent users from running code, but Google did follow Apple’s lead in imposing a 30% tax.)
Finally, we have an opportunity for Internet users to take their power back
Right now, miraculously, there are two bills in Congress that would meaningfully shift power away from Big Tech and back to Internet users.
I say miraculously because, to an outside observer familiar with tech and the Internet, it was not at all clear that Congressional blustering about Big Tech would actually lead to good bills. But, while Congress has presented some terrible bills as solutions to the problem of Big Tech, the bills that actually ended up getting momentum in Congress are both really good.
The Open App Markets Act (OAMA)
The Open App Markets Act (OAMA) addresses the power shift on mobile, by banning the above-described shenanigans that Apple and, again to much a lesser extent, Google use to assert their power over mobile.
The bill is so clean, concise, and readable that it’s not even worth summarizing. You can just read it yourself and it’s awesome.
(A quick aside for Apple fans: I know there are a lot of you out there saying, “but wait, I trust Apple and I like letting them make choices for me.” We get this a lot. If you’re in that camp, when reading this bill I’d urge you to think about the *other* companies that the current status quo on mobile empowers or could empower to a disastrous extent in the future. The list of most popular mobile apps is absolutely dominated by Google and Facebook/Meta; so unless you trust both of those companies as much as you trust Apple you have to realize that there’s a serious problem with the status quo. Worse, it now seems inevitable that AR glasses will someday replace our laptops and phones just as phones replaced our iPods, cameras, maps, pocket calculators, etc. When that happens, whoever makes the hit AR product will control all of desktop and mobile computing, unless we pass a bill that limits that power. That winner could easily be Google or Facebook/Meta. Do we really want them to have the kind of veto power over all consumer computing–and in practice the entire Internet–that Apple has over the iPhone today? If not, passing this bill becomes urgent, because by the time the shift to AR happens it could already be too late.)
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA)
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act addresses the problem of Big Tech making their platforms less open to competing products. Specifically it addresses self-preferencing and interoperability.
You should read the text of this bill too, though it’s more complicated so I’ll summarize it here.
In the words of the bill’s sponsors, it would prevent “dominant platforms from abusing their gatekeeper power by favoring their own products or services, disadvantaging rivals, or discriminating among businesses that use their platforms in a manner that would materially harm competition on the platform, [for example by] preventing another business’s product or service from interoperating with the dominant platform or another business; [by] requiring a business to buy a dominant platform’s goods or services for preferred placement on its platform; [by] misusing a business’s data to compete against them; [or by] biasing search results in favor of the dominant firm.” (That summary is from the bill sponsors’ press release.)
The bill has thresholds, such as an inflation-adjusted $550 billion market cap, to ensure it would only apply to the largest and most dominant tech companies, and won’t make it any more difficult for small companies to compete with Big Tech.
Both bills are doing well and have a chance of passing
While they face stiff opposition from the most powerful companies in the world (Tim Cook has been personally calling lawmakers to lobby against the bills!) these bills are not optimistic longshots. They really have a chance of passing.
OAMA passed out of committee in a bipartisan 20-2 vote. That is pretty much the best you can ask for when it comes to momentum. AICOA passed out of committee with a bipartisan 16-6 vote. A strong showing. These bills have legs.
We can all do something to make sure these bills pass
The first and most basic thing you can do is write and then call your members of Congress. You can do both of these things at the tool Fight for the Future created here: AntitrustDay.org.
If you have a business, the best possible thing you can do would be to get a meeting with your members of Congress to talk about how Big Tech is a problem for your business and how these bills would help. The best way to do that is to call them (it could take a few tries), introduce yourself, explain that you are a local business owner and would like to share your thoughts in support of these two bills, and ask for a meeting. Then once you get a meeting date on the calendar, be in touch and we’d be happy to help you prepare.
This is a rare chance for all of us to take major action for a better internet
Back in the mid 2000s, as Web 2.0 started to bring us out of the worst of the Microsoft era, when Firefox, VLC, and Bittorrent were among the most popular desktop apps, software felt like it was on our side. And it was, because free, open source projects just cared about working well.
Even Apple’s own products of that era (Macs and iPods) gave you that feeling, because macOS was based on open source software and fairly flexible for developers; because Apple was the underdog; and because Apple made money selling hardware, not by squeezing money from software developers.
Now the landscape has changed completely and so has the feeling software gives us. Rampant self-preferencing and limitation of interoperability on the web combined with rampant power plays by Apple and Google on mobile, have reduced Internet users’ power to switch away from Big Tech and their leverage to demand software that treated them better.
But now, for the first time ever, policymakers have their heads out of the sand. There are two totally non-clueless antitrust bills being considered by the U.S. Congress that have a real chance of passing. If they pass, the sky’s the limit on how much change we’ll see.
Most casualties of Big Tech’s monopolies are the awesome apps and websites that could exist but don’t. These casualties are completely invisible. We have no idea what we’re missing, and while no law will give us back the decade of creativity and collaboration and growth we’ve lost, we can put a stop to this stifling of the internet now. We can bring all those defunct or never-got-out-of-the-gates open source projects and startups back, and soon, we’ll see wonderful and mind-blowing new projects that give users better options, more leverage, and more power.
On the other hand, if these bills fail to pass, a looming platform monopoly in AR/VR could make Apple’s current chokehold on mobile look quaint. The status quo is on track to give one company—probably one of today’s dominant tech companies—de facto power over what we can see and do online.
Those are the stakes. Let’s pass these bills!
Holmes Wilson is a co-founder and previous co-director of Fight for the Future. He also co-founded Miro, Open Congress, and Amara, and ran online campaigns for the Free Software Foundation. He’s now building a peer-to-peer Discord called Quiet.