The antitrust fight is also a web3 fight

Posted June 8, 2022, 12:01 AM

Guest post by Holmes Wilson, co-founder and previous co-director of Fight for the Future

For alternatives to Big Tech to flourish, we don’t just need a web3 stack; we also need antitrust legislation that will give internet users more power to choose the technologies and products that give them the most freedom. 

Dominant tech companies abuse their gatekeeper status to undermine human rights, distort democracy, abuse our personal data, and stifle competition. While crypto and web3 can help, these technologies are far from immune to Big Tech’s competition-stifling power. For several years, Bitcoin was banned globally in the iOS App Store; it could be again. Meanwhile BitTorrent, which is functionally equivalent to leading web3 protocols like IPFS and Filecoin, is still banned. 

This is ominous for web3, and it gets even more ominous when we remember how Big Tech interacts with governments representing large markets. As we see in the case of China, Apple blindly follows bans on privacy-enhancing or censorship-circumvention tech, even when this blatantly harms users’ human rights. Crypto mobile apps could suffer such bans in pretty much any jurisdiction, at the behest of an anti-crypto local law, and then crypto projects would not be able to reach iOS users in those jurisdictions with their apps.

Worse, here in the US it would not even take a law to trigger a global ban. It has been widely reported that Apple has abandoned internal plans to encrypt iCloud data due to backchannel pressure from the US Department of Justice. Such pressure from a US administration, federal agency, or powerful industry partner could sway Apple to ban some or all crypto / web3 apps globally, just as they voluntarily ban BitTorrent globally today. This scenario seems most likely for privacy-focused cryptocurrency apps like Zcash or Monero wallets, but in the right political circumstances, for example the aftermath of some awful event where perpetrators happened to use crypto, we could see a broader ban.

It is also important to remember that Big Tech’s power to ban crypto apps could easily expand to cover more classes of device and more everyday scenarios. We are after all on the verge of another platform shift to AR/VR, and if Apple or a similarly-oriented player wins there, we could see that control extended far beyond mobile in ways that would be really terrible for crypto and web3. Even in the short term, Apple seems to be moving each update of macOS closer to the draconian model of iOS, so Apple desktop users could soon face iOS-style bans. Users can escape to less draconian platforms, but as we see already in mobile, Apple’s policies can still have dramatic impacts on the market – even on users who flee – thanks to Apple’s market share with elite users who spend a lot.

There is a solution in simple policy interventions that would prohibit this kind of censorship: the Open App Markets Act [OAMA] and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. They are both simple and targeted legislation that would address these problems but they obviously face opposition from the biggest companies so we need all the voices we can rally in support. Apple in particular will fight these bills tooth and nail. We know because they already have been at the state level and it’s been reported that Tim Cook himself has been lobbying Senators against the bills. It would be great to spread awareness about this potential victory and engage leading voices in the crypto space to help get these bills across the finish line.

The opposing companies are big enough that there is likely well-resourced and sophisticated opposition to both bills that will be invisible to our side until it’s too late. A big and unusual grassroots push is key to winning. Some of the proponents of these bills seem risk averse when it comes to going to their users, which makes me worried that they don’t understand how hard it is to pass legislation over opposition this well-resourced. Maybe enough of Congress is on board with ignoring big tech and sticking it to the man, but we cannot rely on that. 

This win will pay dividends for decades to come. Many crypto platforms are still so focused on infrastructure and years away from deploying end-user-facing applications that the threat of being banned by an app store is nowhere near the top of their list. Or they just don’t have enough usage yet to create flashpoints. But as soon as projects begin deploying private, censorship-resistant web3 apps to many users, OS-level gatekeepers will bite them and things will get ugly. Crypto/web3 projects will wish then that they took this opportunity to remove “banned on phones, AR/VR, etc” from the set of catastrophic risks they need to worry about.

There is a unique confluence of political factors right now creating bipartisan support which makes passing these bills possible; if we miss our chance, it might be too late down the road when crypto/web3 projects start running into these bans again, the way Bitcoin and BitTorrent already have. Passing these bills could be so important for safeguarding the ecosystem.

Broadly speaking, making it as easy as possible to build decentralized competitors based on free software and open protocols is probably the best intervention to achieve the goals of antitrust. Most of that work involves building useful tech stacks and products, not political work. For that building to be effective we can’t have gatekeepers like Apple deciding what stacks or products are allowed to be viable. So we should see this policy intervention as something that if it passes will enable powerful technical interventions, or if it fails to pass would leave lasting limits on the efficacy of technical interventions.

There is a lot of leverage here over the future of tech!