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Monday, August 31, 2020

Big tech economic hegemony and the future of markets

…Today we rightly celebrate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which gave Americans the power to break apart private corporations. But in many respects, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the more important document. This act was based on the understanding that monopoly networks like the railroad and the telegraph could be used to influence the actions of people who depend on them, and hence their power must be carefully restricted, in much the same way that we restrict the power of government. As Senator Sherman himself put it,
"It is the right of every man to work, labor, and produce in any lawful vocation and to transport his production on equal terms and conditions and under like circumstances. This is industrial liberty, and lies at the foundation of the equality of all rights and privileges."
For a century and a half, Americans used common carrier policies to ensure the rule of law in activities that depended on privately held monopolies. These rules served as a pillar of American prosperity through much of the twentieth century. By neutralizing the power of all essential transport and communications systems, the regulations freed Americans to take full advantage of every important network technology introduced during these years, including telephones, water and electrical services, energy pipelines, and even large, logistics-powered retailers. Citizens did not have to worry that the men who controlled the technologies involved would exploit their middleman position to steal other people’s business or disrupt balances of power.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Bork, Richard Posner, and other neoliberal Chicago School legal scholars set out to overturn America’s antimonopoly regime, targeting the traditional prohibitions on discrimination that common carrier laws had established. Their scholarship later played a major role in the writing of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In that bill, Congress simultaneously exempted internet platforms from any responsibility to police the content on their sites, and failed entirely to impose on them any requirement to provide equal and just service to all who depend on their networks.

As a result, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other platforms were free to develop business models that treated every seller and buyer—every citizen—differently. These corporations exploited this license to the fullest, and have used their power to reorganize entire realms of human activity. Amazon, Google, and Facebook match individuals to specific shoes and clothes, specific restaurants and hotels, specific movies and music, specific jobs and schools, specific drugs and hospitals, specific sexual partners, and even specific books, articles, speakers, and sources of news.

These companies are the most powerful middlemen in history. Each guards the gate to innumerable sources of essential information, services, and products. Yet thus far no governmental entity in the United States has signaled any intention of limiting the license these corporations enjoy to serve only the customers they choose to, at whatever price they decide.

This means that Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg enjoy much the same power as God did in Babel. We live in the world they manufacture for us. Their vision for what we should do, where we should go, how we should think, and who we should be is now our vision, too. As their manipulation machines increasingly deliver different information to each member of the public, it becomes harder for people to engage in debate and have any chance at bringing these companies under control…

From Harper's.

Imagine going to the supermarket or department store and being charged prices for your items based on your purchase histories and other Big-Tech-gleaned personal data. Absurd? Read the entire article (may be paywalled).


...In 2018, an Irish technologist named Dylan Curran downloaded the information Google had collected about him. All in all, Curran found, the corporation had gathered 5.5 GB of data on his life, or the equivalent of more than three million Word documents. 
In an article for the Guardian, Curran wrote that within this trove he found 
"every Google Ad I’ve ever viewed or clicked on, every app I’ve ever launched or used and when I did it, every website I’ve ever visited and what time I did it. They also have every image I’ve ever searched for and saved, every location I’ve ever searched for or clicked on, every news article I’ve ever searched for or read, and every single Google search I’ve made since 2009. And . . . every YouTube video I’ve ever searched for or viewed, since 2008." 
In addition, Curran discovered that Google keeps a detailed record of what events he attends and when he arrives, what photos he takes and when he takes them, what exercises he does and when he does them. And it has kept every email he has ever sent or received, including those he has deleted...

Ponder the implications.

It's by no means limited to Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Uber’s vast cache of data about where people go and when provides an ever more perfect map of traffic to and from a community’s bookstores and coffee shops and churches—and to its backroom casinos and drug dealers and sex clubs.

All this information gives the corporation the ability to understand just how badly you need a ride. Do you rush off every Thursday at 8 pm to see your boyfriend? Do you like to squeeze your Sunday visit to mom in between a morning round of golf and the afternoon NFL game? Every Tuesday and Thursday at 3 pm, do you have to get to your psychiatrist and back without your boss knowing?

Well, your boss may not know, but Uber does...
Don't get me started on the con that is Uber.

I worked in subprime credit risk analytics and management (large pdf), 2000-2005. We had many, many facts regarding our customers and prospects in our own databases that we couldn't legally use in our vetting.

It's a different world now. The unregulated digital panopticon is here.
"In the world of Amazon, Google, and Facebook, not only are we subject to the will of a few private companies, manipulated moment to moment by unseen forces that rule our commerce, track our movement, and record our every thought. Each of us must now suffer alone, with less and less ability to commiserate with others about our common problems. The power of the middleman has become so great as to make each of our problems unique, solely a matter between us and the master."

Click the image.

Final thought for the moment (one mapping to the original Health IT focus of this blog). Recall how interoperable EHRs were going to bring us to the clinical nirvana of "personalized medicine?" 'eh?

Can you say "finely tuned personalized rationing by price and ability to pay, as intermediated by Big Tech?"

See also my prior post,

GAFA, Really Big Data, and their sociopolitical implications

And, my latest read:

Something broke in the American economy around 1978. It stopped functioning as well as it had for working-class people over the previous several decades. The great middle-class expansion was ending. A middle-class shrinkage was starting. At the center of it all was a divergence…

The divide was opened by technological progress and an accompanying economic evolution that shifted the business of the United States away from building or fixing things with your hands and toward helping people or solving puzzles with your brain. In a world where machines get better every year at doing work previously handled by humans, some of that evolution was inevitable. The pace and the scope of the change were not. They were stoked by policymakers, usually in Washington, and cheered on by the titans of commerce who just so happened to reap the rewards more than anyone else.

Tankersley, Jim. The Riches of This Land (p. 99). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Recommend triangulating it with these two.

My recommendation rationale will become self-evident.


Finished Jim Tankersley's book. Really enjoyable, thought-provoking work. Indeed, triangulate with the Andersen and Kendi books. The topic (of rebuilding a morally healthy economy and society) is urgent, exigent. Grist for a post of its own, ASAP.

“Surprising and enlightening and timely. The Riches of This Land turns our understanding of why America once had an economy that delivered prosperity on its head. Only when black men, women of all races, and immigrants broke through blockades of oppression did their gains flow out to everyone. And, now, as Americans seek to find their way out from another devastating economic crisis, Tankersley exposes the true heroes of American prosperity—and why they are the source of our future renewal.” —Ibram X. Kendi [pg 272]

Also germane, a book I cited in my August 23rd post:


More to come...

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