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A tech antitrust hearing misses the point

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Aug 17, 2020 03:44 PM

On July 29th, the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon were called before the US Senate Judiciary Committee to give testimony to lawmakers considering substantial revisions to antitrust laws. Yet despite a five-hour hearing, conducted using some of the very same software which is at the root of these issues, little headway was made.

It's easy to focus, like these hearings, on the specific objectionable purposes for which the software these companies are involved with has been used. Specific actions have caused specific harms, and we understand the importance of talking about that and potentially taking or requiring remedial actions. However, it is imperative that we not stop there. We must go deeper, and expose the fact that it is the very way our predominant proprietary software culture and legal regimes operate -- giving software companies immense power over users -- which will inevitably lead to recurring specific problems until addressed.

Attempting to address the problem of monolithic corporations like the ones in question, and their control over the digital sphere, will fail without addressing the issue at the core of their exploitation of users: proprietary software, or software that does not respect its users' freedom. The terms of use and distribution for the software are by no means the only issue, but they are central to many of the issues causing public concern. We've been waiting for follow-up coverage to acknowledge the conspicuous absence of discussion about our rights as users to control the software we use, but it has not happened. This is evidence that the Free Software Foundation, the free software movement, and anyone else concerned with ending the dystopian control tech companies have achieved over our lives, have our work cut out for us.

Proprietary software is one of the chief ways in which these corporations are able to continually abuse their users. If the software were instead free to study, share, and modify, others would be able to detect and remove (or substantially mitigate) unwanted "features" like the user tracking frequently discussed throughout the hearing. Even users without technical know-how could then use the altered software to protect themselves, and would benefit tremendously from a robust community of software professionals and hobbyists able to verify that their computer or cell phone isn't violating their rights. Giving the community of users insight into and control over the tools that they use is crucial to retaining their freedom.

Besides enabling abusive features, nonfree software also helps these companies achieve and maintain their monopolistic dominance on the market. The Apple App Store uses Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to ensure that only programs that Apple approves are able to run on Apple devices. This gives them tremendous control over the applications people get to download, and naturally tends toward a monopoly. As long as Apple uses DRM to ensure that their phones are only able to run software with their permission, Apple retains unilateral control over its users, and over an entire industry of developers, creatives, and tinkerers who develop applications for mobile phones. To make matters worse, the US and other governments actually support this control via laws that make breaking it or sharing information about how to break it a criminal offense. The solution here isn't to tell Apple that it can't use its control in some specific ways, like banning apps that compete with Apple products, which is something it regularly does. The solution is to take this unjust control away from them and other companies that push DRM.

During the course of the hearing, subcommittee chairman David Cicilline continually referred to Google and the other firms up for discussion as "walled gardens." Proprietary software is the core reason for this term, yet in the hearing itself, there was no indication of the understanding that nonfree software establishes the conditions to trap users in the first place.

Likewise, nowhere in the hearing did we hear a reference to any free and easily deployable software that could challenge the monopolizing powers while giving users similar functionalities. Through network federation and decentralization, communities could deploy smaller servers that mesh together to form one larger network, avoiding the further "siloization" of the Internet. Decentralized social networks like Mastodon have already attracted millions to their platform. Even Google's dominance on Web queries could be challenged by deploying federated search software, such as YaCy. Twitter has publicly said that they are exploring such possibilities -- there is no reason all of the platform companies in this hearing shouldn't be doing the same.

The Free Software Foundation has been campaigning for complete software freedom for nearly thirty-five years, and is the organizational home of GNU, the first operating system written for the sole purpose of giving users their freedom. If we want to heed chairman Cicilline's warning and not "bow before the emperors of the online economy," we should start by letting our friends, families, and lawmakers know that as long as software is nonfree, we enable corporations like these to continue their assault on human dignity and user freedom.

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