Tag Archives: monopoly

protocols > platforms

I used to read Techdirt, and Mike Masnick in particular, with genuine reverence when Futurismic was still a running concern. He was tech-critical long before it was fashionable to be so, but from a position that challenged my own thinking quite a bit, and still does: in short, Masnick’s about as close to First Amendment Fundamentalism as I’ll go. (I used to go a fair bit closer than I do these days; insert your own wistful reminiscences of more innocent times on the still-somewhat-utopian internet of the Noughties here.)

These days my greatest and enduring interest in Masnick’s work comes from his maintaining the old (and seemingly all-but-forgotten) distinction between protocols and platforms. As presumably foreshadowed by the preceding paragraph, this is largely in service of “free speech” — though Masnick’s notion of free speech is notably more thought-through and pre-problematised than the one you encounter most often. I guess we might say he’s one of the last intellectually honest techno-libertarians.

Here’s Masnick introducing a long piece at Columbia U’s Knight First Amendment Institute, where he argues in favour of a return to an internet based on open protocols rather than proprietary platforms:

Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices. It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.

In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.

Now, regular readers will likely have picked up some hints in recent years that I no longer assume competition between commercial actors will necessarily, or even possibly, result in the emergence of an optimal solution. (YA RLY.)

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that a lot of the sociopolitical issues we’ve seen in the last decade have been exacerbated by the ubiquitous reach of certain proprietary platforms of communication. A very reductive way of putting it might be to observe that if a platform and the set of rules by which it is used (which we might call its interface) are considered as a game, then two things are likely to happen: a) highly motivated people will find a way to win the game by pushing at the edges of the rule-set, and b) highly motivated people with access to money will lean on the curators of the rule-set to make their pushing at its edges more successful. All of this will happen within a broader ecology where almost all the strong incentives to action tend to be driven by and towards the accumulation of profit and/or power.

(Or, more succinctly: Facebook, and its abuse for political and financial influence, is inevitable in a capitalist context which does not actively mitigate against the existence of Facebooks.)

But Masnick’s spot on when it comes to the power of protocols — because both he and my anarchist self recognise that replacing Facebook with a state-run monopoly platform, however well intended, would result in similarly dysfunctional results. (This is another sense in which the big comms/tech companies are infrastructures, and thus very similar to the rapacious railway companies from which they are descended.)

I don’t have the time (and you likely don’t have the patience) to revisit some of the more woolly implications of my PhD thesis today, and in the end the protocol/platform distinction didn’t make as strong a showing in the final work as originally expected — but nonetheless it’s a distinction that matters a great deal in my theoretical model of sociotechnical change. To simplify hugely, the reason why a state-run monopoly platform is little better than a privately-owned monopoly platform is not that they are both monopolies; on the contrary, any geographically inelastic distribution system (be it a railway or a communications network) should, nay MUST be a monopoly, because breaking the network up into subnetworks reduces both its functional and its economical efficiency.

Rather, the problem with platforms is that, to use my preferred theoretical nomenclature, they control both the infrastructure layer and the interface layer. A protocol, by contrast, is provided as an open opportunity (or capacity) by an infrastructure layer in order that all comers are able to to develop their own compatible interfaces thereto; those interfaces will work with the clearly delimited capacities and potentialities of the infrastructure layer, and package them in such a way as to fulfill the teleology of a particular practice-as-performance.

(Regrettably, the full elucidation of my theoretical work has yet to make it into any publications, and I’ve not had the time to write it up for its own sake. I’m hoping that an SI proposed in the aftermath of last year’s RGS conference, plus a paper I’m hoping will be accepted for this year’s Petrocultures, will give me the chance/reason to get this stuff down in print and out in the world.)

Looping back to Masnick, then: my theory broadly agrees with him on the point about “pushing power out to the ends of the network” — but with the proviso that the network (which cannot be disentangled from the organisation charged with running and maintaining it) must necessarily be a closely regulated and functionally restricted monopoly in order for his proposed freedom of use-cases to be possible; the total organisational separation between the infrastructure layer and the interface layer must be maintained. This is not an ideological position, but an argument from function which can be illustrated with pretty much every infrastructural development in history.

And that’s the core thesis one of the handful of books I’d really like someone to pay me to write… but as no one’s gonna even think about paying me until it’s been written, I guess I’d better find the time to write it while I’m being paid to do other things, eh?

leveraging their putative goodness / the psychopathology of private infrastructures

You may remember Joel Bakan from such influential Noughties non-fiction books/movies as The Corporation. Well, Bakan’s back, and his earlier thesis — that corporations, if considered as people, are basically psychopaths — is no less true than before. In fact, he claims it’s worse, because concepts like “corporate social responsibility” have merely encouraged them to become superficially charming psychopaths.

The fact is, despite all the celebratory talk, corporations will not – indeed, cannot – sacrifice their own and their shareholders’ interests to the cause of doing good. That presents a profound constraint in terms of what kinds and amounts of good they are likely to do – and effectively licenses them to do ‘bad’ when there’s no business case for doing good.

The further problem – and this is the part about democracy – is that corporations are leveraging their new putative ‘goodness’ to support claims they no longer need to be regulated by government, because they can now self-regulate; and that they can also do a better job than governments in running public services, such as water, schools, transport, prisons, and so on.

This later point is not original to Bakan, but it deserves to be repeated — and furthermore demands to be appreciated more thoroughly than it is:

For many tech players, monopoly is built into their business models. Facebook, for example, has to be the place everyone goes for social connection. Amazon needs to be the platform for all shoppers and retailers. Google, the search engine everyone uses. The value of these companies is based on being the one place where everyone goes. That gives them a monopoly on the two things that have value in the tech space – attention and data.

It also incentivises them to go beyond their sectors, to invade and dominate other sectors…

These companies are infrastructures. They are also media. (These terms are not contradictory.)

The unstoppable logic of monopoly should be familiar from the hey-day of the rail barons, but we carefully (and, it seems, very deliberately) chose to forget all of that as we slipped into neoliberalism’s vampiric embrace during the latter third of the twentieth century. But the analogy is so clear, it’s almost absurd: think back to the way in which the railways colonised last-mile delivery, lodgings and hostelries, materials extraction and processing; recall the collusion of rail barons in buying up land alongside the routes their track would follow.

(Heck, recall that the seed of the comms network that we erroneously and reductively call “the internet”, namely the telegraph, first emerged as an internal function of the railways themselves, and was subsequently expanded and spun off once the railways themselves had stopped being so exciting to investors and capitalists alike.)

This is not malice, though it might well be greed; the contextual incentives of capitalism produce these effects almost inevitably. It is a Skinner box we collectively built around ourselves, and it’s been there so long that for the most part we question it no more than a fish questions its immersion in water.

It’s not software that’s eating the world; software is merely the interface to the hardware, the functional mask of magical provision draped atop the infrastructures that are eating the world and vomiting the chunks back up in our mailboxes. Long before fibre, it was the railways eating the world — until eventually their miraculous bubble of profit popped against the pin of practicality. It always turns out that you can’t make a profit from infrastructure if you want it to be fair and efficient — though you can profit by riding the wave of expansion and making impossible promises.

And when that wave crashes down, and you’ve long since cashed out, the world will be faced with the necessity of funding the upkeep of what you built — because what you built ate the world that came before it. The disruption you worship, the legacy you crave, the transformation you dream of… it’s already achieved.

But just like any other male western hero, you’ll walk away and leave everyone else to deal with the aftermath, because maintenance isn’t sexy, and there’s no way you’re going to be the one who carries the cooking kit.

The corporation is a psychopath, because heroes are psychopaths, and we’ve become accustomed to the entrepreneur as the hero of our age.

Time to turn the page.

Qui autem temperet moderatores?

… [UK] consumers have overpaid for the natural monopolies and other networks underpinning many of these markets for at least the past 15 years. Because of patchy reporting from regulators, it’s impossible to document the full extent of these overpayments. However, this research finds that regulators have systematically set prices too high, leading to consumers facing unnecessarily high bills – that is, bills well in excess of what is required to deliver the necessary investment in these essential services.

We’re able to put concrete figures on these overpayments for water, energy, telephone and broadband infrastructure. Our conservative estimate is that that excess figure is £24.1bn. We find that the errors in energy and water have cost consumers £11bn and £13bn respectively.

[…]

… just focusing on the technicalities would neglect a simpler explanation: regulators have been out-resourced and outgunned. If this was just a story of errors in financial modelling, the errors would sometimes fall in consumers’ and sometimes in investors’ favour. But this is not what we see: instead, the errors are biased. Indeed, as we show below, this has sometimes been a conscious strategy from regulators: fearing under-investment, they have ‘aimed up’ on capital costs, choosing higher values than their estimates indicated they should.

Monopoly Money report from Citizen’s Advice