Kashmir Hill spent six weeks trying to "divorce" herself from the five major businesses that dominate the Internet: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple. She's written a series of articles about her efforts, which demonstrate very clearly how the Big 5 dominate Internet commerce and business, and how hard it is to avoid their tentacles.
As an example, here are excerpts from her article about "locking out" Amazon for a week.
I am on a mission to live without the tech giants—to discover whether such a thing is even possible. Not just through sheer willpower but technologically, with the use of a custom-built tool that would literally prevent my devices from accessing these companies, and them from accessing me and my data.
. . .
Amazon reportedly controls 50 percent of online commerce, which means half of all purchases made online in America, which is obscene.
Amazon is not just an online store—that’s not even the hardest thing to cut out of my life. Its global empire also includes Amazon Web Services (AWS), the vast server network that provides the backbone for much of the internet, as well as Twitch.tv, the broadcasting behemoth that is the backbone of the online gaming industry, and Whole Foods, the organic backbone of the yuppie diet.
Keeping myself from walking into a Whole Foods is easy enough, but I also want to stop using any of Amazon’s digital services, from Amazon.com (and its damn app) to any other websites or apps that use AWS to host their content. To do that, I enlist the help of a technologist, Dhruv Mehrotra, who built me a custom VPN through which to route my internet requests. The VPN blocks any traffic to or from an IP address controlled by Amazon. I connect my computers and my phone to the VPN at all times, as well as all the connected devices in my home; it’s supposed to weed out every single digital thing that Amazon touches.
Ultimately, though, we found Amazon was too huge to conquer.
. . .
Dhruv keeps track of all the times my devices try to ping Amazon’s servers during the week. It happens nearly 300,000 times, probably in part because apps frustrated not to get a reply from the mothership keep pinging repeatedly until I close them. My devices try to reach Amazon via 3,800 different IP addresses, which suggests that there are a lot of different apps and websites attempting to connect to Amazon throughout the week.
. . .
Amazon has embedded itself so thoroughly into the infrastructure of modern life, and into the business models of so many companies, including its competitors, that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it.
In her blockbuster academic article, Lina Khan, now a legal fellow at the Federal Trade Commission, argues that Amazon is breaking the spirit of antitrust law, but that regulators have failed to act because that law has evolved in a way to ignore monopolies if they result in immediate low costs to consumers.
But Khan says that our increasing reliance on Amazon in our everyday lives carries harms that we are only beginning to see, including Amazon being able to exploit its workers (who reportedly pee in bottles to keep up with the company’s punishing pace), being able to massively data-mine Americans whose activity it has vast access to (meaning it could charge different people different prices based on what it knows about them, which it experimented with in the past), and being able to kill off competitors who would otherwise offer consumers a variety of options and prices (R.I.P. Diapers.com).
There's much more at the link, and in the rest of the series of articles. Highly recommended reading.
This is a very sobering series of articles. Effectively, we're in a monopoly situation on the Internet, even though it doesn't fit the "traditional" definition of a monopoly. Each of the Big 5 have so much clout in the market that they can effectively wipe out competitors by undercutting them, then buy up the remains and incorporate them into their own companies. (As the article says, look at what Amazon did to Diapers.com. That's just one example out of many that could have been chosen.)
I'm in a similar situation in that, as an independent author, I sell my books exclusively on Amazon.com. That's because the time and hassle of selling them across multiple platforms is outweighed by the better terms offered by Amazon. If Amazon chose to alter those terms (which it can do at any time, without warning), keeping more of the sales proceeds for itself and giving me less of them, I might be in all sorts of trouble. That's a very uncomfortable thought.
On the other hand, having seen the enormous inefficiencies demonstrated by the US government when it tries to regulate commerce and industry, would an attempt to break up these de facto monopolies actually result in anything better? That's the big question no-one's able to answer right now . . . but sooner or later, someone's going to have to make the attempt.