Interoperability: it’s time for Facebook network users to be able to choose how we access our content
Imagine a world where people with AT&T telephones could talk only with people who had AT&T phones. Where a Ford car could “fill up” only at a 76 station whereas a Toyota could “fill up” only at a Shell station. Where if your email account was at Gmail you couldn’t send mail to someone on Outlook.
That’s the world of Facebook, the world’s largest digital network with 3.14 billion people actively using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month. Customers must use the Facebook applications or website to access other member photos, videos and words. It has used its monopoly to acquire, copy or kill its competitors.
That imaginary world describes transportation in 1800s America, before railroad track gauge (the distance between the rails) was standardized:
- The Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Albany used 4 feet, 8–1/2 inches.
- From Norfolk to Richmond, from Memphis to New Orleans, it was 5 feet, 0 inches.
- Canadian railways used 5 feet, 6 inches.
- The Erie and the Lackawanna was 6 feet, 0 inches.
Thus rail systems were geographically isolated and not interoperable. This lack of interoperability came to a head during the U.S. Civil War.
The Lincoln administration, after planning the transcontinental railroad at 5 feet, 0 inches to conform with the existing railroad in California, decided on 4 feet 8–1/2 for consistency with the most important Eastern railroads. This assured that 4 feet, 8–1/2 inches would be the North American standard gauge.
Fast forward 100 years or so to the first fax machine that ran on the telephone transmission network. Their value grew as the network of fax machines grew. And their value plummeted after (a) adoption of the open network that is the Internet and (b) development of software and machines that could use the Internet as a transmission replacement for telephone networks. Today, “fax machines” are integrated into printers.
When I went online, pre-web, email vendors had walled gardens. You talked to CompuServe people on CompuServe. AOL, on AOL. On the corporate side, you had MCI Mail and IBM PROFS. Then through SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) “eventually all the services succumbed to the inevitable and provided SMTP gateways that allowed their members to send messages to everyone else.” Interoperability via protocol in an era that valued openness.
Congress demanded interoperability in telephone infrastructure in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, requiring states to allow competition in local telephone service.
The idea of forcing firms with monopoly facilities to make them available to rivals is not new. It has been part of U.S. antitrust policy for 60 years and has existed in the regulation of railroads and pipelines.
Once upon a time, movie studios could not own movie theaters. With that sort of vertical integration, the studios (which were not as giganormous as they are today) could restrict other studio access to consumers.
The DOJ filed suit in 1938 alleging the eight studios were violating antitrust law in two key ways. First, the DOJ said, the studios were part of an unlawful price-fixing conspiracy, and second, they were monopolizing the distribution and exhibition sectors.
In a 7–1 Supreme Court ruling, federal law “forbade vertical integration in the film sector and ended the Hollywood studio system” from 1948 until August 2020.
Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) argued successfully in federal court this year that this restriction should sunset. Not unlike Comcast (distribution network) owning NBC/Universal (content); AT&T owning Time Warner; Disney owning FOX. Anti-trust action has been MIA inside the beltway for a long time.
Effective corporate lobbying is why interoperability is missing from cable and fiber, and why companies like Verizon have been accused of tearing out copper wire to replace it with unregulated FiOS.
Interoperability is a boon for consumers. It reduces friction, provides choice. And it forces companies to compete on service and quality products.
Take Twitter, for example. It has a “lovely” API that allows developers to build applications that work with its data (customer tweets). You can read your tweets in Hootsuite, for example. Here are 10 Twitter apps for Android. And 12 Twitter apps for iOS.
Facebook, on the other hand, is a walled garden that enforces its monopoly.
It’s virtually impossible to build anything on top of it. You can ask users to install a Chrome plugin… mostly though, researchers are locked out of Facebook.
Hint: making it possible to exchange chat messages between Messenger and Instagram is not what I mean by interoperability. Both apps are owned by Facebook. This sort of “interoperability” cements the Facebook stranglehold on its network.
In a review of The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times asserts that the United States suffers from a “malignant form of increased [market] concentration” which I would argue is exemplified by Facebook.
Over the past two decades, competition and competition policy have atrophied, with dire consequences, Philippon writes in this superbly argued and important book...
The great obstacle to action in the US is the pervasive role of money in politics. The results are the twin evils of oligopoly and oligarchy.
Donald Trump is in so many ways a product of the defective capitalism described in The Great Reversal. What the US needs, instead, is another Teddy Roosevelt and his energetic trust-busting. Is that still imaginable? All believers in the virtues of competitive capitalism must hope so.
Absolutely, Facebook should not be allowed to vertically and horizontally integrate, despite Wall Street applause. More importantly, Facebook should be forced to separate access to the network from the service, so that we consumers can choose our mode of access and how we manage personal data. Just like Twitter.
About the author: Kathy Gill is a journalist by education (BA) and practice; an economist by education (MS). She taught graduate courses in the history of digital communication and in network economics at the University of Washington for a decade.
Header image: Flickr CC