Privacy Without Monopoly, EU edition

The GDPR forbids competition in human rights abuses.

Cory Doctorow
OneZero
Published in
8 min readJun 11, 2021

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EFF’s interoperability banner graphic, a kind of Rube Goldberg machine integrating pulleys, belts, megaphones, emoticons, lightbulbs, HTML tags, a Creative Commons icon, a radio tower, a padlock, etc.

Tech monopoly apologists insist that there’s something exceptional about tech that makes it so concentrated: “network effects” (when a product gets better because more people use it, like a social media service).

They’re wrong.

Tech is concentrated because the Big Tech companies buy up or crush their nascent competitors — think of Facebook’s predatory acquisition of Instagram, which Zuckerberg admitted (in writing!) was driven by a desire to recapture the users who were leaving FB in droves.

Google’s scale is driven by acquisitions — Search and Gmail are Google’s only successful in-house products. Everything else, from Android to YouTube to their entire ad-tech stack, was once a standalone business that Google captured.

Monopolies extract monopoly rents — like those delivered by Googbook’s crooked ad-tech marketplaces, or Apple/Google’s 30% app shakedown — and use them to maintain their monopolies. Google gives Apple billions every year so it will be the default iOS and Safari search.

These are the same tactics that every monopolist uses — high-stakes moneyball that creates a “kill-zone” around the monopolist’s line of business that only a fool would try to enter. Tech DOES have network effects, but that’s not what’s behind tech monopolies.

We see monopolies in industries from bookselling to eyeglasses, accounting to cheerleading uniforms, pro wrestling to energy, beer to health insurance. These monopolies all follow Big Tech’s template of mobilizing monopoly rents to buy or crush all competition.

The differences between the anticompetitive tactics that monopolized these industries are largely cosmetic — swap out a few details and you might well be describing how John D Rockefeller and Standard Oil monopolized the oil markets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Big Tech does have network effects, but these are actually a tool that can be used to dismantle monopolies, as well as maintaining them. Network effects are double-edged swords: if a service gets more valuable as users join, it also gets less valuable as users leave.

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