I started to write a blog a few weeks ago asking the question of whether we should be regulating big web companies like Google and Facebook. I put that blog on hold due to the furor about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The original genesis for the blog was comments made by Michael Powell, the President and CEO of NCTA, the lobbying arm for the big cable companies.
At a speech given at the Cable Congress in Dublin, Ireland Powell said that edge providers like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple “have the size, power and influence of a nation state”. He said that there is a need for antitrust rules to reign in the power of the big web companies. Powell put these comments into a framework of arguing that net neutrality is a weak attempt to regulate web issues and that regulation ought to instead focus on the real problems with the web for issues like data privacy, technology addiction and fake news.
It was fairly obvious that Powell was trying to deflect attention away from the lawsuits and state legislation that are trying to bring back net neutrality and Title II regulations. Powell did make same some good points about the need to regulate big web companies. But in doing so I think he also focuses the attention back on ISPs for some of the same behavior he sees at the big web providers.
I believe that Powell is right that there needs to be some regulation of the big edge providers. The US has made almost no regulations concerning these companies. It’s easy to contrast our lack of laws here to the regulations of these companies in the European Union. While the EU hasn’t tackled everything, they have regulations in place in a number of areas.
The EU has tackled the monopoly power of Google as a search engine and advertiser. I think many people don’t understand the power of Google ads. I recently stayed at a bed and breakfast and the owner told me that his Google ranking had become the most important factor in his ability to function as a business. Any time they change their algorithms and his ranking drops in searches he sees an immediate drop-off in business.
The EU also recently introduced strong privacy regulations for web companies. Under the new rules consumers must opt-in the having their data collected and used. In the US web companies are free to use customer information in any manner they choose – and we just saw from the example of Cambridge Analytica how big web companies like Facebook monetize consumer data.
But even the EU regulations are going to have little impact if people grant the ability for the big companies to use their data. One thing that these companies know about us is that we willingly give them access to our lives. People take Facebook personality tests without realizing that they are providing a detailed portrait of themselves to marketeers. People grant permissions to apps to gather all sorts of information about them, such a log of every call made from their cellphone. Recent revelations show that people even unknowingly grant the right to some apps to read their personal messages.
So I think Powell is right in that there needs to be some regulations of the big web companies. Probably the most needed regulation is one of total transparency where people are told in a clear manner how their data will be used. I suspect people might be less willing to sign up for a game or app if they understood that the app provider is going to glean all of the call records from their cellphone.
But Powell is off base when he thinks that the actions of the edge providers somehow lets ISPs off the hook for similar regulation. There is one big difference between all of the edge providers and the ISPs. Regardless of how much market power the web companies have, people are not required to use them. I dropped off Facebook over a year ago because of my discomfort from their data gathering.
But you can’t avoid having an ISP. For most of us the only ISP options are one or two of the big ISPs. Most people are in the same boat as me – my choice for ISP is either Charter or AT&T. There is some small percentage of consumers in the US who can instead use a municipal ISP, an independent telco or a small fiber overbuilder that promises not to use their data. But everybody else has little option but to use one of the big ISPs and is then at their mercy of their data gathering practices. We have even fewer choices in the cellular world since four providers serve almost every customer in the country.
I was never convinced that Title II regulation went far enough – but it was better than nothing as a tool to put some constraints on the big ISPs. When the current FCC killed Title II regulation they essentially set the ISPs free to do anything they want – broadband is nearly totally unregulated. I find it ironic that Powell wants to see some rules the curb market abuse for Google and Facebook while saying at the same time that the ISPs ought to be off the hook. The fact is that they all need to be regulated unless we are willing to live with the current state of affairs where ISPs and edge providers are able to use customer data in any manner they choose.