back to article Digital trust-busting time? US lawmakers mull how to tame giga-corps Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook

US antitrust legislators held a hearing on Thursday to consider how to limit the power of technology gatekeepers like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook in order to promote competition. Over several hours, the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law considered the testimony of academics, policy …

  1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Sounds good to me

    John Thorne, a partner at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Fredrick, whose firm coincidentally is defending Facebook against antitrust charges, raised the alarm about Apple and its plan to roll out its App Tracking Transparency notification.

    "The impact of iOS 14.5 threatens to be devastating for app developers," he said in prepared remarks [PDF]. "Industry analysts expect that 85 per cent of users will decline to opt in. That will make independent developers’ advertising space (but not Apple’s) several times less valuable."

    And even for users who choose to opt-in, there will be less advertiser demand, leading to lower ad prices on iOS devices. "Many free apps will not be able to survive, and those that remain will charge subscription or download fees," he said, arguing that the Congress should enact a new enforcement tool to prevent imminent industry harm like Apple's opt-in to tracking gambit.

    Nothing here sounds bad to me, as a consumer.

    1. Andrew Williams

      Re: Sounds good to me

      Apple’s message as I see it is simply,

      A) You have zero reason to track those who use your app

      B) We are done with “free apps” that stalk their users from here to eternity

      C) We are using this measure to cull vast amounts of garbage apps from the app store

      1. Zippy´s Sausage Factory
        Unhappy

        Re: Sounds good to me

        Much as I dislike Apple as a company, I can't see the flaw in that one.

        But then I guess that's because I'm an ordinary pleb and not a billionaire who's made their cash selling other people's personal details to the highest bidder, I guess. I'm sure Zuckerbot will be along shortly to inform us all why we're all wrong. Again.

        I got into the IT business thinking I'd be helping build a better, safer, more connected world. So much for idealism.

    2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Sounds good to me

      Absolutely. If an app is genuinely viable, a compelling product, charge a tiny subscription to make up for per-person income lost from the ad parasites. Doesn't have to be a vast amount. Per-user income from ad impressions is around a few quid per year, if that.

      Charge 30p a month or a fiver for a lifetime licence. If people don't want to pay that, well you app probably just isn't that good.

      If an app is just a shitty excuse to sell adverts, and has no intrinsic value, let it die.

      Expect some turbulence while the market adjusts to the reality of not being able to track and sell everyone's every move online and offline, and while people get used to the idea again of actually paying for things they find worthwhile.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Sounds good to me

        This is already true to some extent in Apple's App Store. I've seen plenty of apps that are 99 cents or $2.99 or something like that on iOS and free on Android. The iOS version has fewer/no ads, the Android version is often loaded with them.

        I think most iPhone owners don't have a problem with paying a few bucks for almost anything they might find useful. I will say though I am much more likely to buy an app if there is a way to try it out before paying - I don't like paying for something and finding out it is crap. Not that spending a buck or two is big hit, I just don't like being ripped off! I don't believe app ratings since despite Apple's best efforts they just aren't that reliable. More reliable than Amazon product ratings, I guess, but that's about the lowest bar there is.

        1. Giles C Silver badge

          Re: Sounds good to me

          If I like an app and what is does then I will pay for it. I agree that offering a free trial (first 5 levels of a game for example) will encourage people to buy. There are certain games that I would always pay for (any in The Room series). But looking at my devices there aren’t any apps in regular use that I haven’t paid for.

          I would far rather pay a reasonable fee for an add free experience, compared to some apps which insist on playing adverts every 3 minutes.

          So removing the tracking and giving an income to the developers seems good to me.

  2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Targets

    Chocolate Factory and Fraudbook are probably in the worst shape to defend against anti-trust actions and a generally tightening of the law. Their size and market dominance makes launching a competitor problematic, which is one of the factors needed to successfully win an anti-trust case. Twatter is another which rather vulnerable though I think they would be a later target.

    Fruit and Amazon would likely face narrower attacks. Their dominance is not as pronounced in the their overall market sector. While Amazon is the e-commerce behemoth, it does face increasing competition from intelligently run B&M retailers. Companies like Wally World and Target do have the resources to build up their e-commerce capabilities. Fruit is not a dominant supplier overall in any device segment. The primary issue with them seems to be with how they run app stores and the inability to side load apps on a phone.

  3. HildyJ Silver badge
    Megaphone

    What to do

    First, bar all acquisitions.

    Second, require divestiture of the ad businesses and make ads on the core businesses non-discriminatory so that Google Ads is charged the same ad rates for putting an ad on Google as any other advertiser.

    Third, prohibit the transfer or sale of any personal data without informing the person of what data will be transferred and gaining the specific consent of the person for each and every transfer.

    That would be a start.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: What to do

      Third, prohibit the transfer or sale of any personal data without informing the person of what data will be transferred and gaining the specific consent of the person for each and every transfer.

      Largely because it's impossible to do the specific consent in any meaningful way. It's either too generic 'trusted partners' or too specific; I can't see how you can present the latter without completely overloading the person in question.

    2. Pseu Donyme

      Re: What to do

      App stores should to be run as independent non-profits with the goal of minimizing their cut from the sales enshrined in their bylaws (and therefore in management compensation / incentives); it is hard to see a way around the network effect* resulting in de-facto monopolies so app stores should be treated as utilities / infrastructure.

      Making on-line advertising strictly and truly opt-in would seem to fix much of the current mess as that would remove the incentive underlying the creation and upkeep of the same.

      * An app store with more users and/or developers attracts more of both thereby becoming ever more attractive until very few users or developers can be bothered with other app stores (akin to a telephone network becoming more useful with more subscribers leading in a single telephone network instead of several disjoint ones).

    3. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Re: What to do

      "... prohibit the transfer or sale of any personal data without informing the person of what data will be transferred and gaining the specific consent of the person for each and every transfer."

      The transfer is far from the main problem. What gets done with the data by the recipient is the main issue.

      This is where the GDPR fails to pass muster. It requires a data controller to fulfil their obligations to the data subject up to the point of transfer, but no further. Whether the recipient fulfils their obligations or not. A commercial originator of the transfer is in general only required to [a] establish that and "adequacy decision" is in place; [b] ensure the presence of contractual terms, binding corporate rules or approved codes of conduct with the recipient; [c] declare that the transfer is necessary for a contract with or in the interest of the data subject; [d] required by law; or [e] that they have obtained the data subject's consent for the transfer. (GDPR Chapter V).

      The problem is that in case [a] an adequacy decision is a national scale matter that says nothing about the performance of an individual business notionally covered by it; compliance with contractual terms and rules is impossible for a data subject to verify; what is necessary for or "in the interest of" the data subject does not limit a data controller's choice of individual recipients of a transfer, only the general nature of the service provided by it; and consent for the transfer has no force to control how the data are processed once transferred.

      While a data controller has various obligations to check the integrity and performance of data processors it uses, these obligations [a] do not extend significantly to recipients acting as data controllers, and [b] are entirely validated for adequacy by the data controller. So the party responsible for fulfilment approves their own performance.

      The overall consequence is that a data subject has no real recourse in respect of data transfers. In order to exercise their rights, they would have to independently challenge the recipient (usually in a foreign jurisdiction) as well as the originator, and the disparity of scale and power typically precludes any challenge succeeding.

      Consent, as will be apparent from the above, is not a sufficient protection.

  4. Howard Sway Silver badge

    The Global Antitrust Institute has been funded by Amazon, Google......

    and the sheer nerve shown by setting up some institute that has the sole purpose of producing "research" that concludes that nothing needs to be done about the companies funding it is proof enough that the big hammer needs to be wielded with some gusto very soon.

    1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: The Global Antitrust Institute has been funded by Amazon, Google......

      Do you know nothing at all about advertising or politics? These companies have a right to express their views. Lying in public is what the First Amendment is about.

  5. mark l 2 Silver badge

    The US authorities will do sweet FA just like they did with the anti trust investigation into Microsoft, who were definitely a monopoly but were allowed to continue without being broken up.

    The lobbying powers of these megacorps allows them to get away with slaps on the wrist, and that underlying problem with the US political system is what needs to be addressed before you will be able to successfully do anything about the power these companies hold.

  6. Claptrap314 Silver badge

    It is weird

    As mentioned, it is weird to put Apple & Amazon in the same bucket as Google & Facebook. The former are late industrial age companies, the latter are fully information age. Breaking up the former (by, say, separating AWS) is both easy, and...probably not particularly necessary. The entire value of G & F, however, comes from the way that they link data. It is the network effect, but processed at the speed of electrons. There is simply no way to break up either without destroying value. (That is, the value of (G-x) + the value of x << the value of G.)

    Yes, in the case of G, you could, for instance, pull off search & then have search sell the information it gains on the open market. But the nature of data means that the value of that information varies based primarily on the nature of the data it is merged into. And of course, data is almost never sold in the traditional sense--it is duplicated.

    Open interconnect legislation would be helpful. But it is really hard to see how a regulating body would have a chance to avoid regulatory capture without falling hopelessly behind.

  7. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    An easy fix?

    There are no easy fixes, tax them and they will borrow money from themselves resulting a "profit loss", regulate them and they will just reorganize to avoid the regulations - essentially they are just doing the same things that politicians say are OK and do all the time themselves.

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