Unraveling the Antitrust Olympics: Market Consolidation & Surveillance Capitalism

In the high-stakes game of big tech, antitrust lawsuits have become the new Olympic sport. And in this arena, Google has found itself in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of Justice. But is this just a rehash of European antitrust actions, or is there more to the story?

Unraveling the Antitrust Olympics: Market Consolidation & Surveillance Capitalism

Originally published in SitePoint Weekly: The freshest resources for web developers, designers, and makers.

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The Rundown: Technology news, society, and culture

If the explosive House antitrust report two weeks ago triggered the countdown, we just heard the starting gun. The U.S. Department of Justice filed its long-awaited antitrust suit against Google this week.

We've begun the process that will determine whether we continue marching forward into an entrenched surveillance capitalism dystopia, or fix the problem of runaway market consolidation. This problem has thrown systems out of equilibrium not just within tech, but every industry in the modern global economy from cosmetics to communications.

After the House report's toothy ambition, the case laid out has disappointed some commentators. Of course, the report was Democrat-led, and Republican interest in antitrust is much more politically motivated. Bill Barr's argument hasn't won over people like The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, who suggests it's too similar to the European thrust Google has been training on for years, and will be too easy for them to swat away. Ben Thompson is more optimistic and explains his thinking in light of the prevailing mood in this week's Stratechery.

The analysis is worth the read if you're getting up to speed on what competition regulation needs to consider in an environment where the lines between customer and supplier are blurred. It explores aggregation theory and why we need to update our thinking around what constitutes a monopoly. If a consumer could switch providers readily in the old world, we knew there was unlikely to be an antitrust problem. In a big data world, that guideline is beside the point.

Back to the suit: Patel isn't the only one who seems to think the complaint is a joke. Google's snarky response: "This isn’t the dial-up 1990s."

The companies in the firing line have vehemently denied their market dominance for as long as the topic has been on the table, even as it was on display to an almost comical degree. This is expected, since they will want to give up as little as possible when regulation takes place and that's hard to do when you've pre-emptively admitted guilt.

I had been curious to see just how spirited the defense would be once the hive had been shaken. Denial of the obvious is unsurprising. This derision out of the gate makes it clear that there's no secret desire for regulation lying dormant in the upper echelons of FAANG companies (an occasional, wishful tech media side narrative for the past five years).

Checks and balances that moderated market power and prevented monolithic monopolies were responsible for the kind of competitive dynamism that free-market absolutists could only dream about. Those frameworks ensured that competition was both an enriching and equalizing force, one that maintained some semblance of a relationship between GDP growth and declining wealth inequality while still allowing the ambitious to make their play and create exponential gains.

But their benefits sound like a 20th-century good-old-days fairy tale now.

What's craziest is that in the U.S. the underlying laws that dealt with Standard Oil are still on the books. Robert Bork, a Reagan-appointed judge backed by large commercial and political interests, spent decades rewriting and reframing the history around the Sherman Act until the judiciary largely stopped implementing it for its purpose.

In Australia, we spent the early 21st century torching our market consolidation legislation — the limitations were too prescriptively defined to subvert with social engineering alone. This means social engineering isn't an option to us now. We'd have to get the country to agree on the topic, a major party to care enough to put it on their election agenda, and apparently to get anything done we'd need Rupert Murdoch's support — unlikely, given that the current conditions were effectively handmade as a gift to him.

While covertly engineered shifts in how the law functions are serious cause for concern, the upside is that all it takes is a shift in sentiment and worldview for the U.S. legal profession to revisit its interpretation of antitrust and how Sherman is implemented. That mood has arrived.

Effective limits on market consolidation were an unmitigated success story in Western liberal democracies. We know this, we're sure about this, and we will all benefit when — or if — we reverse their underhanded dismantlement.

Further Reading

As we move beyond the speculatory stage and suits are filed, you might be looking to get up to speed.

Are your crazy anti-vax, QAnon relatives on Facebook right that governments are using the pandemic to crack down on your rights? Well… yes, as it turns out, which is particularly distressing when you know just how much of a mile conspiracists can make out of an inch.

Naturally, there’s a lot of overlap between authoritarian control measures and those that control the spread of a virus, which doesn’t particularly care about the rule of law or the defense of liberty — but does care about getting into your incredibly suitable habitat for replication. And so it’s a fantastic time for opportunists to dismantle freedoms in wider and more permanent ways. What are you going to do to stop them? Let the rona rip?

On the online front, a report has concluded that governments are using the pandemic to crack down on digital rights. And according to The Economist, the pandemic has eroded democracy and respect for human rights, and strongmen have taken advantage of Covid-19 in numerous ways.

Given that the virus is going to virus for a while yet, it would serve us well to clearly define the murky territory between pandemic management and the erosion of digital and human rights. With an accessible way of communicating these distinctions, it’s easier to bypass the confusion and hold governments to account.

Remember when we worried about the dangers of new Facebook account requirements for Oculus users… weeks ago? This guy had his Facebook account banned within 10 minutes of merging, had it reviewed, and was still told it couldn’t be reversed.

Facebook did reverse it half a week later, and he wasn’t the only new Quest owner who had problems. But the bans had to do with automatic decisions around Facebook’s real name policy, which is not something that early Oculus buyers ever opted into dealing with. The manual review the user initially requested also didn't even turn the error up — for all we know there's a stack of three kids in a trenchcoat up there playing World of Warcraft and rejecting appeals by default.

This is exactly the sort of issue that had everyone concerned when the news about mandatory Facebook accounts first broke.

The only sensible recommendation that can be made at this point is not to buy an Oculus device or spend on the Oculus Store if you already have one. Sell the thing to one of your crazy QAnon relatives since they’re not leaving Facebook any time soon, or use the Steam VR library, which works with Oculus Quest devices among others.️

Activists say Apple is censoring Belarusian protesters who are using Telegram as a means of protecting themselves from police and security forces who are assaulting, torturing, raping, and killing protestors, and the police organization will let them get away with it — so long as they maintain anonymity.

"As Apple released its new iPhone 12 at a launch event on Tuesday, Belarusian activists spammed Twitter and social media using the hashtag #AppleCensorsBelarus, attempting to draw attention to the tech giant's reported efforts to remove information and posts in Telegram channels used by anti-government demonstrators in the Eastern European nation."

The UK is investigating whether streaming services pay artists fairly.

We can answer that one ahead of the investigation. Artists have always been drained dry by a never-ending line of intermediaries, something the digital era was meant to fix. That hasn’t been the case, and while streaming companies are enjoying the 21st century quite a great deal, artists receive as little as 13% of a $0.003 to $0.008 royalty from Apple Music and Spotify.

If you are looking to minimize middleman runoff, Apple Music is the play in this case. But just as with apps, we’re wasting the potential of the internet until the businesses and individuals who create first-order value get the first order of revenue. That was part of the pitch for the internet, and something the technology still enables us to deliver on.

🦾 Pointed Advice

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A practical introduction to Fastify, a lightweight Node.js framework for back-end development. When Hapi and Express are too heavy, this is the tool you'll want in your kit.

Learnability in Web Design: 5 Best Practices

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How to Create a Reddit Clone Using React and Firebase

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How to Bundle a Simple Static Site Using Webpack

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Versioning: Web development, design, and tooling

The Utility Shelf: New tools, app, libraries & frameworks

  • GumHub offers a way to sell access to your GitHub repos with Gumroad.
  • Directual is a backend-focused low-code platform for building web and mobile apps visually.
  • And Canonic is a low code platform that allows you to publish complex REST & GraphQL APIs complete with webhook workflows, documentation and a CMS easily.
  • Ellx is a platform for visual reactive programming that aims to take the pain out of using spreadsheets and notebooks at scale.
  • Here's a quick and easy wizard for generating an SVG favicon maker on the fly — choose your letter or emoji of choice, select colors and type settings, and download your copy.
  • Simplify the process of finding the right line height for your type scale with The good line-height.
  • Glyphs is a complete icon design system with a utlity set that exports icons from Figma via API and packages them as SVGs, web components, or JavaScript framework components.
  • Cloudflare introduced its Browser Isolation beta — a way to improve your security by sandboxing your internet usage on a separate server, only receiving draw commands to render pages.
  • Get more advanced with your performance approach with detect-gpu — a package that's like user-agent detection for finding out your user's graphics card.
  • CSS Background Patterns is a set of free editable patterns that look great.
  • StellarX is a tool for creating VR/AR/XR content. Create collaborative Spaces, rich simulations, and visualize the world around you like never before, without code.
  • dragmove.js is a tiny Javascript library that makes DOM elements draggable and movable.

Logic Flow: Computing, automation, productivity​, and tools for thought

If you’re a non-designer who’d like to design custom iOS 14 icons yourself, Mycons is an app that makes that easier to do (as well as making it a bit simpler to buy premium packs while on iOS).

These are both helpful things, but I would love to see some of the more banal pain points addressed.

Last week I mentioned Icon Themer, an iOS shortcut for creating app icons that launch apps directly (rather than taking a detour through Shortcuts). Unfortunately, the process of setting each item up remains a PITA.

Launch Center Pro has pivoted to making custom iOS icons management easier and reportedly uses the same Safari web clip method as Icon Themer, and makes the icon setup process a little simpler. But they still need to be done one-by-one.

I would love to see some kind of informal standard take shape for naming icons and an app that helps you pair them with the right apps, including fallbacks (i.e. the checkmark icon for your obscure task manager). I don’t think it's currently feasible within the constraints of iOS, but an app that can let me quickly change icon sets at a tap and generates the necessary bookmarks or shortcuts would be brilliant.

Aesthetica is an early product that gets close by delivering pre-made sets of icons in full via profiles. This is a convenient idea, though having to trust those profiles is less than ideal (and is not quite the ideal user experience). Hopefully we're not waiting until WWDC 2021 for some quality-of-life improvements on this front.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff of Ness Labs provides a concise guide to using Connected Papers, a tool for research that helps users explore academic papers in a visually mapped way.

"You enter an origin paper, and they generate a graph. To achieve this, they analyse about 50,000 research papers, and select the ones with the strongest connections to the origin paper."

You can generate new graphs from the papers you encounter as you research, and start introducing these data points back into your own graph with a tool like Roam-highlighter in your kit.

Whether you make use of psychology research in your UX work, are keeping up with the latest in a hard engineering area like machine learning, or you're a biohacker or personal performance enthusiast, this is an impressive free tool. It's also great to see accessible tools for the graphing of knowledge take off beyond the personal notes space.

It feels like we're finally moving on from the transfer of old modalities to the digital space and getting better at knowledge synthesis from a digital-first perspective.

  • In this YouTube video, Liam Gower demonstrates how he uses RemNote — a notetaking app built around a spaced repetition system — to learn code concepts and memorize syntax faster.
  • The master knowledge database is a common notion in Notion circles (sorry). But if you really want to take the idea to extremes, check out Habitat, an extremely intense dashboard that attempts to manage all kinds of information, at all stages of the capture-storage-retrieval process, from one database.
  • Raindrop.io is an intuitive, cross-platform bookmark manager for digital makers and power users.
  • Read these notes on time management from Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch — a classic that is resurfacing at the right time for many.
  • I found this huge, free macOS Big Sur-style icon directory while looking for options to use with Flotato instances. A handy resource, especially for beta users.
  • Nate Kadlac of Plan Your Next talks about using compounding connections in Roam Research to fuel his content creation and get ahead of the blank page problem.
  • Hold X is a Chrome extension that wants top help you become more productive with prioritization, timeboxing, distraction-blocking, and gamification.

The Roadmap: Product, strategy, Future of Work, and careers in tech

Dropbox is the latest San Francisco tech company making remote work permanent. The list of companies from tech's most remote-resistant geographical pocket gets longer by the day. As SitePoint's co-founder Mark Harbottle said recently: what took you all so bloody long?

Germany could make home-working a legal right. I like the idea, and I also think it's particularly important now as more countries have the virus under some sort of transient state of control.

Most companies are deciding between remote-allowed and remote-first at the moment. But there are numerous holdouts, some of which have practically sprinted back into their offices as soon as lockdowns have allowed for it.

A friend at a tech company recently forced everyone back into the office and the attendant daily train commute even though they'd been more productive as a remote team and seriously considered going fully-remote permanently as a result.

The lessons here:

  • Sometimes you win in life. Sometimes you work for idiots who want you to spend your days in crowded, closed spaces during a pandemic for no reason.
  • We're going to start seeing more legislation around remote work as part of sanctioned cultural fabric for the first time. Our first example of that looks positive.
  • You should probably just solve your rights-related problems by moving to Germany.


The Shutdown: A little something for later

Food for Thought

Rig of the Week: Quadra 700 'Jupiter' — Macintosh Battlestation Running A/UX

Our favorite setup of the week doesn't just go for a retro look. Redditor CWJ_Wilko says he's dual-booting Mac OS 8.1 and A/UX 3.0.1 and trying to keep the setup as '1991' as possible — full specs and context provided in the comments.

Connect with the community

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Until next time,

Joel Falconer
Managing Editor