Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Trying to de-technify . . . and failing


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.

Peter

6 comments:

645645645645645 said...

A couple of days ago, the oddest thing happened to me. I was watching some videos on YouTube and noticed some suggested videos to the right of the screen. One of the videos was a guy turning wood into a bowl. This video had nothing to do with the video I was watching. I have no interest in wood turning and had never watched a video about it. Well, I watched that video and then another of his videos. The next day, I received and email from Amazon suggesting I purchase books on wood turning. Amazon and Google (which owns YouTube) are in a big spat about Amazon not selling Google products. But, it seems, Google/YouTube is still selling users' information to Amazon. Why the algorithm decided I would be in the market for books on wood turning after watching 2 videos is beyond me.

Wayne said...

If they were trying to avoid Goolag, Amaspam, Facesuck, Microsloth, and Crapple, they could just spend their time binge-watching Netflix. /sarc

(I know, I know, Netflix uses AWS)

stencil said...

One wonders what percentage of Amazon's gross income is spent on bribing various levels of government to leave it the hell alone.

Magson said...

That was a fascinating series. Thanks for linking it!

binky said...

These borderline and/or effective monopolies will always be with us.
Look at the railroads in the 1800's
Standard Oil in the 50's, Good old Ma Bell
And now the internet powers that be.
Eventually they all lose their almost unlimited power. Be it government action or the marketplace it will happen.
Paul in Texas

C. S. P. Schofield said...

My gut instinct is that it might well be enough to do three things;

1) Make it clear that the tech giants can keep their relative immunity to lawsuit over content only so long as they do not edit...which they are already doing and must STOP. They only get to take down content that violates copyright or breaks the law.

2) Make sure that no level of government passes legislation or regulation that PROTECTS tech company monopoly.

3) Do something about the pernicious tendency of financial institutions to stop processing transactions of disfavored groups. Make it clear that if you are a bank or an online credit card processor you deal with he NRA or the KKK or the American Communist Party on an even basis. If you don't KNOW they are breaking the law, you process their transactions and shut up. If you DO know they are breaking the law, you call the FBI and keep your goddamned head down.