I ended last week’s post by mentioning that Francis Fukuyama has proposed a novel way to control Big Tech, using so-called “middleware” companies to break the FAANGs’ control over Internet content.
As I understand what Fukuyama had in mind (having consulted that invaluable resource, Tech Stuff for Dummies), a middleware company would operate like this: WheresApp, a tech company launched by twenty-four-year-olds, would be an app that inserts itself in-between a Big Tech platform (say, Amazon) and the end consumer (us). More technically, WheresApp sits on top of the Amazon platform and modifies the presentation of data (products, e.g.) that Amazon would otherwise provide.
Consumers who are annoyed that Amazon has all their data and are also annoyed that Amazon competes with its own customers and are also annoyed that Amazon is big and successful while they aren’t, would download the WheresApp app and go to the Preferences page, which would look something like this:
My Shopping Preferences
Whenever available, these are my shopping preferences:
☐ Never show me Amazon-brand products
☐ Show me only certified green products
☐ Always show me products made by Black-owned companies
☐ Always show me products made by women-owned companies
☐ Don’t show products requiring assembly
Users would then go to the Search page and type in “super hot lingerie” and WheresApp, using its artificial intelligence algorithms, would show only the results consistent with those choices specified on the Preferences page.
As envisioned by Fukuyama, WheresApp and its competitors could also curate information on news and similar websites, verifying political claims, blocking fake news, etc. (On your Preferences page you would presumably check: ☐ Never show me any ideas to the right of AOC.)
This is a cool idea, and if I were fifty years younger I might launch such a company myself. Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s middleware concept, as he lays it out, would likely be stillborn. Although Fukuyama appears to be blissfully unaware of it, he himself describes exactly why his idea won’t work. Here are a few quotes from his essay:
“Congress would likely have to pass a law requiring platforms to use open and uniform application programming interfaces, or APIs, which would allow middleware companies to work seamlessly with different technology platforms.”
“Congress would also have to carefully regulate the middleware providers themselves, so that they met clear minimum standards of reliability, transparency, and consistency.”
“The most logical approach would be for the dominant platforms and the third-party providers of middleware to strike revenue-sharing agreements. *** These agreements would likely have to be overseen by the government, since [the tech platforms] should be expected to resist sharing advertising revenue.”
“Perhaps some of these problems [e.g., reinforcing Internet bubbles] could be resolved with regulations that required middleware to meet minimum standards.”
In other words, Fukuyama has apparently been in academia so long he no longer understands the difference between a hypercompetitive startup company and a deadly government bureaucracy. He wants his middleware idea to be regulated to death even before it’s been born.
A better idea would be to allow middleware companies to survive (or not) based on how much consumers value their offerings and on how clever they are in using AI to curate information. They wouldn’t need to have the government force tech platforms to share revenue – they would survive (or not) based on a subscription model.
How not to control Big Tech
Whatever approaches we ultimately use to control Big Tech, we are at least fortunate to have before our eyes a model of what-not-to-do, thanks to our friends in the European Community.
I suppose it’s possible that people in the EU are especially dense and don’t know about cookies or that you can eliminate them by clicking twice in your Settings folder. But that hardly justifies annoying the hell out of every Internet user in the world dozens of times a day.
More recently, the EU has threatened to “break up” the Big Tech companies because they are all monopolies. What is really going on here is staggering envy and pettiness on the part of the EU bureaucrats. Europe, a wealthy society of some 500 million people, has managed to build not a single Big Tech firm of its own.
Of the ten largest companies in the world, eight are tech firms and five of those – the biggest five – are American. Two are Chinese and one is South Korean. Europe’s biggest tech firm ranks 60th. But instead of doing something about the competitiveness of their dwindling societies, the Europeans have found it much easier to try to cripple America’s tech firms.
The EU’s aggressiveness doesn’t harm Chinese tech companies because the Chinese, quite sensibly, pay no attention to the EU. But that aggressiveness does harm law-abiding American firms, suggesting that what the EU really wants is a future controlled by the Chinese.
I could also point out that these EU bureaucrats are the same folks who brought us The World’s Worst Vaccine Rollout, causing the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people – but I won’t because I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Your Humble Blogger should show more respect for the brainless twits in Brussels who, after all, are carrying heavy responsibilities while Your Humble Blogger is cheerfully doing nothing but writing glib nonsense week-after-week.
And you’re right, so I promise not to utter one more word of criticism about the brainless twits in Brussels. Instead, I will allow others to speak for me. I specifically commend to you, in the context of the brainless twits in Brussels, the immortal words spoken by Jamie Lee Curtis in the film, A Fish Called Wanda: “Calling you stupid would be an insult to stupid people!”
Next up: Antitrust Is More Interesting Than You Think, Part 15
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