Dept. of Modest Proposals
By creating a Data Commons, our tech giants could help save the innovation economy, and possibly our democracy
In my last column, Data, Power, and War, I argued that the four largest tech companies have cornered the market on the data, processing, and human capital required for our society to truly understand itself. And I warned that such a concentration of power is both unhealthy and dangerous. It also puts the Four on an inevitable collision course with Big Government.
So what to do about it?
There’s been a lot of talk of antitrust in the Valley and DC lately, with a significant cohort of national representatives creating an “Congressional Antitrust Caucus” and an increasingly contentious chorus of detractors in the Bay area, including notable former Facebook executives such as Chamath Palihapitiya and Sean Parker, calling the tech oligarchs out in dramatic fashion.
Tech is having an existential moment, and the traditional communications response of “say the right things, wait for it to blow over” is not going to work this time. This moment will not pass, and while it may take years (and/or another administration in the White House), the technology industry must either take proactive and dramatic action, or wait for the government to do it for them.
I vote for the former.
To head off a Microsoft v. DOJ-like government sh*tshow, the tech giants are going to have to do something monumental, visionary, and bold. Here’s my modest proposal — with the caveat that it’s likely easier to criticize it than debate its merits. But that said, the big idea is pretty simple:
Create a Data Commons, and open your datasets to the public.
I know, I know, it’s a crazy idea. But stay with me, there are a few important caveats. First, I’m not suggesting that companies give everyone access to the data they’re currently using to deliver their services. Instead, I’m suggesting they create a public good, updated, say, once a year, that is scrubbed and delivered in a controlled and considered fashion. This “Data Commons” would offer researchers, startups, governments, non-profits, and yes, competitors, unique insights into the behavioral patterns of consumers on the tech giants’ platforms. It’d be the greatest single act of corporate philanthropy in the history of business. And it’d change forever both the landscape of innovation in tech, as well as the public perception of the benefit these corporations deliver back to society at large.
Imagine what startups would do with searchable, aggregate, anonymized search histories, parametrized by zip code, topics, and any number of other metadata? Imagine the same for Amazon’s recommendation engines and purchase histories? For Facebook’s Newsfeed engagement? Even if the data were aged by 18 months or two years, it’d be a win win win.
Yes, I can hear the Friedman school already gearing up to tell me that in fact this is a loss for tech companies, not a win, and that no sane corporation would willingly give away such a core asset. But let’s step back, and recall what happens when the government decides to “remedy” corporate overreach through antitrust regulation. These remedies are nearly always drastic, ranging from striking down proposed mergers or acquisitions to imposing draconian restrictions on how a company does business (just ask Microsoft). The Big Four could individually engage with the DOJ in attenuating, years-long antitrust battles, or they could act in concert, and avert the government’s gaze by proactively addressing the true harm: The stranglehold they have on our aggregate data streams.
It’s worth thinking about that term — “harm” — for just a moment. Traditional antitrust is driven, among many other things, by standards of “consumer harm” and “monopoly.” Consumer harm is often judged by prices — if Verizon were to purchase Comcast, for example, it’s likely that prices for broadband and mobile service would go up, harming consumers. And monopoly — an entire market dominated by one player — is often addressed by breaking up that single player and/or opening its services to competitors (as was the case in the AT&T antitrust action in the early 1980s.)
The Big Four have a unique prophylactic when it comes to both consumer harm and monopoly — most of their services are given away at no cost to consumers, eliminating the issue of price-based harm, and while it’s hard to argue that Facebook doesn’t have a “monopoly” on social networking, competition is always “one click away” — there’s always a startup one can point to as the next possible tech giant.
But if we take a bit more nuanced view of the terms, I’d argue it’s entirely possible to claim the Big Four have a monopoly on data, processing, and personnel, and that there’s significant consumer harm engendered by that monopoly. And sure, I’m not a lawyer, or even a journalist who regularly covers antitrust, but I’ve spoken to enough folks about this idea to know it’s not entirely crazy.
Plus, honestly, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve seen glimpses of this kind of behavior in the past — Uber sharing data with cities, for example, or Twitter sharing with academics. And over the years, the big players have shared data sets of one kind or another as they seen fit. But nothing on the level I’m suggesting.
I could see Google, with its open-web roots and its history of “not being a conventional company,” as the potential break out player in my fantastical scenario actually coming to life. They’ve got the data, the platform, and the culture (at least, they used to). But yeah, I’ll admit, as I re-read this, it kind of sounds like science fiction.
Then again, it’s been too long since either Google, Facebook, Apple or Amazon did anything good for the world besides congratulate themselves on their own successes, and declare those successes to be good for the world. The creation of a truly useful Data Commons could fundamentally change the way the world thinks about our most valuable companies. And it could also change the course of innovation and democratic discourse in our society. And as we all know, that kind of change is sorely needed right about now.