Content Neutrality From Amazon, Apple, Facebook, & Google More Important Than Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is in the news, but an even bigger problem is looming, the increasing lack of content neutrality.

Content Technology Islands

The island mentality of the world’s largest technology companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google isn’t getting nearly the debate that it should. These companies seem to be so focused on keeping users locked into their own content technology gardens that they threaten the easy use of their products and services.

This island mentality problem manifests today in the exact same ways that the repeal of net neutrality is likely to do in future.

Net neutrality deals with how the owners of the Internet’s physical network — the broadband and telephone companies that own the wires — work with the content and applications that use the network. The owners of the pipes have an incentive to treat people differently based on their ability to pay because they have the technology to block or slow down individual sites. That’s now illegal because we currently have net neutrality. However, the FCC released a plan to rescind net neutrality rules and stop policing how carriers treat traffic on their networks. For more, I recommend the Wired article How The FCC’s Net Neutrality Plan Breaks With 50 Years Of History.

The same exact problems already exist with how Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google treat content on their platforms. These companies deliver the technology infrastructure we rely on every day. Yet they have an incentive to figure out ways to block us from going from their island of technology to a rival’s island of technology.

Get off of my island you dirty rat!

For example, Google recently announced that it is cutting access to its YouTube service from Amazon Fire TV. What?! This is crazy talk!

In an excellent article in CNET about the issue, a Google spokeswoman is quoted as saying “We’ve been trying to reach agreement with Amazon to give consumers access to each other’s products and services. But Amazon doesn’t carry Google products like Chromecast and Google Home, doesn’t make Prime Video available for Google Cast users, and last month stopped selling some of Nest’s latest products. Given this lack of reciprocity, we are no longer supporting YouTube on Echo Show and FireTV. We hope we can reach an agreement to resolve these issues soon.”

For one massive technology company to let its spat with another massive technology company lead to blocking one’s service from the other is exactly the island mentality problems I see popping up again and again.

Over the past few weeks, I have experienced several issues related to the lack of content neutrality and the content island mentality that have been mere annoyances to downright devastating.

This morning I was completing an online purchase on a merchant site not affiliated with any of the big technology companies. I was using the Apple Safari browser. I was given the choice to check out using a credit card or PayPal or Apple Pay. I chose PayPal and pushed the button. But instead of taking me to a PayPal form to complete the purchase, Apple’s Safari browser took me to the Apple Pay service. I tried several times to get to PayPal, all with the same result of being forced to Apple Pay.

When I went through the exact same process on Firefox, a Web browser created by a global non-profit dedicated to putting individuals in control online, I had no trouble getting to the PayPal screen! It seems Apple is forcing people to their proprietary payment system.

Central account logins lead to misery

The big technology companies also love to push us into their consolidated sign-on systems where they get to all of their properties using one ID and password. This is precisely the sort of behavior of a company that is protecting its island and can lead to a great deal of problems.

For example, I have never been able to make Google Hangouts work properly. A few years ago it got so frustrating that I wrote a post Why I Totally Hate Google Hangouts!

The basic issue here is that I have a Google Account login that must be used for Hangouts but my default email had not been Google owned Gmail. That meant when people send me a Hangout invite to my normal email address, Google gets confused and it doesn’t work.

While the Hangout issue had been annoying, this same Google account central login system recently led to inadvertently deleting close to a year’s worth of my videos for a project I was working on with a partner company.

I was about nine months into a project of creating one video per month focused on my world travels to be used on a YouTube channel. The company I was working with on the content created a new YouTube account to publish my video series, which I had filmed in places like Sydney, Australia and the Pyramids in Egypt.

But then disaster struck. Somebody at the company was cleaning up their business social networking accounts and found a random Google account that appeared to have no content associated with it. So the person deleted the Google account, not realizing it was tied to YouTube login for the video project I was working on. The YouTube account was also wiped off the face of the earth. Unfortunately, no backups of the videos were saved and the sad result was that those unique videos are now lost forever.

What about content neutrality?

The big technology companies dominate our online lives. The services these companies offer are revolutionary for sure, but there are increasing problems as the companies have grown in power.

Once you’re a customer, and most of us rely on all of these companies every day, there very few ways to go from one closed island to the other.

In addition, the social networks run by these companies allow us to easily pay attention only to our own niche interests and people like us at the exclusion of others, leading to prejudice and polarization of views. While that might be okay for those who have an open mind to alternative ideas, many people dive ever deeper into their own bubble.

The algorithms deployed by the social networks make this problem much worse than it would otherwise be. These companies assume that we are only interested in a small number of ideas. YouTube serves up suggestions based on what has already been watched. Amazon offers books similar to what you’ve bought. If you’ve watched a few dramas on Netflix, it’s tough to find documentaries.

There are many other ways algorithms aren’t friendly to social networking such as the constant surfacing of people in your Facebook and Instagram feeds who you have recently interacted with. And then there is the massive problem of paid content having priority over your friends’ content in your social feeds.

Serendipity (“happy accidents”) are lost when a service like Facebook is so focused on monetizing every interaction in our lives that your feed no longer shows the people you are interested in seeing.

The loss of net neutrality is certainly a problem. But the loss of content neutrality is worse.