How To Break The Internet; or why Big Tech Detective demonstrates monopoly online
Trust me when I tell you that we did not set out to break the internet when we built Big Tech Detective. But it turns out that when you build a tool that lets you use the internet whilst avoiding Big Tech, the monopolies that have come to define online life, it’s less surfing and more…puddle jumping.
Big Tech Detective is a tool that pulls the curtain back on exactly how much control these corporations have over the internet. Our browser extension lets you “lock out” Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, alerting you when a website you’re using pings any one of these companies. You can download Big Tech Detective for yourself and see just how inescapable these corporations are, and how much power they exercise over our daily digital lives. You can’t do much online without your data being routed through one of these giants.
The magnifying glass
Imagine for a second your life on the internet without Google. No Gmail, no Chrome, no Google Docs. No Google Maps or YouTube, or any of the “other bets” that comprise Alphabet. You’d have no phone at all if you use Android. And even if you were masochistic enough to try and weed all of these tools from your life online, as reporter Kashmir Hill was in her groundbreaking series on the big five, that still might not allow you to see why these deep roots are so dangerous for our democracy.
Even websites that seem to have nothing to do with these companies are often reliant on them under the hood. When you use Big Tech Detective to lock out Google, you will get a pop up notification if a website uses Google analytics. If the website where you are watching a movie is hosted on Amazon Web Services, Big Tech Detective will let you know. From the most mundane data, like loading font styles, to the more well known and invasive data tracking like the infamous Facebook pixel, Big Tech Detective invites you into the sausage factory just inside your laptop screen.
Technically, here’s what the tool is doing. As you browse the internet, Big Tech Detective will alert you if the website you are on is exchanging data with Big Tech by identifying and counting connections to internet protocol (IP) addresses known to be owned by each of the four companies. Data journalist Dhruv Mehrotra, who built the VPN that Hill used to report the original series, saw there was potential to build something everyone could use so we could all have this experience first hand. If you are interested in more technical details about how the tool was built, check out the FAQ section on the website.
One question you might be asking yourself is: why did we build an extension for the Chrome browser, which is itself a Google product? By recent accounts, Chrome is responsible for around 60% of browser market share worldwide. We built it for Chrome so that the public could easily use the tool — but don’t worry, we also built it for Firefox for a monopoly-free experience (Firefox btw accounts for only around 4% of browser market share worldwide). The tool itself, however, does not use any components from the Big Four; developer Alden Rivendale Jones was diligent in tracking down alternative services for all of the bits and boops this tool needs to do its job. Yes, there are alternative services out there, but part of our point here is that the alternatives alone are insufficient to create real competition when corporate power is so deeply entrenched in these technical systems.
Zooming back out
Look in any recycling bin and you’ll see the physical evidence of just how dominant Amazon is in online retail — but the real cash cow of the business is Amazon Web Services, a virtually invisible layer of the internet where the company also enjoys dominance. According to a recent article, AWS accounts for 63 percent, — that’s around $13.5 billion — of Amazon’s total profits. (Jeff Bezos’ named successor, Andy Jassy, has managed this business arm for the last ten years.)
Historically, we have only seen just how ubiquitous AWS is during outages, like in November 2020. You can mimic an outage by using Big Tech Detective with Amazon locked and the results are truly alarming: AWS begins to look a lot more like a utility than a product. Now consider for a moment that Amazon is not only housing all the data needed to watch Netflix in the comfort of your bed, but also that they could decide at any moment not to host that data. You may have heard about this “deplatforming” in the wake of the Capitol insurrection; Amazon decided to refuse hosting services to the right wing social app Parler, effectively shutting it down. Of course, no one here is arguing that Parler or any other home to violent white supremacists should be allowed airtime, but it is important to remember that this action was an autonomous choice by Amazon, made at a politically opportune moment, that we have little insight into, and presently, little oversight of.
Last October, the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee concluded a 16-month investigation that culminated in a stunning 450-page report outlining how Big Tech’s dominance in cloud computing, digital advertising, and other markets enables them to unfairly rig the rules of the digital economy, effectively picking winners and losers across the economy. Big Tech Detective sheds light on some of this machinery that is otherwise difficult to see.
Our browsing data is not just used to build better search engines or serve us relevant ads, but it is also powerful in aggregate, helping to feed the surveillance machines that enable discrimination and perpetuate systemic inequities. This unprecedented surveillance power helps them further amass economic power. Their ability to see what’s happening across different sectors gives them an unfair competitive advantage; they use this data to copy products and shut down competitors. They capture large swaths of market share before they have to worry about turning profits, winning the virtual real estate game. These monopolies act as gatekeepers, effectively shutting competitors out of entire markets.
Our relationships with these companies are political and personal, and tangled in ways that are difficult to parse. Big Tech Detective helps point to our forced vulnerability in surfing the web; we have little choice but to interact with these companies online. This dynamic makes the consumer sovereignty frame irrelevant. The idea that we can simply vote with our dollars in a market to reward good actors and weed out the bad actors becomes pretty obviously false. If you rely on the internet to connect with friends, to work, to pay bills, to find housing, you are beholden to Big Tech, and those who can afford to find alternative services are often in a position of privilege to do so. Which is to say that these digital relationships of dependency disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized folks. We hope that this tool will help make some of these invisible but deeply felt forces a little more recognizable.
So now you’ve used Big Tech Detective and you can start to see the man behind the curtain, what’s next? The list of solutions to the set of problems that have led us to this moment is long, but it begins simply: make Big Tech companies face real competition. Using existing antitrust enforcement mechanisms and other regulatory tools, we can break up these monopolies, unwind acquisitions, and help give competitors a fighting chance. Structural separation is integral to ensure that Amazon avoids conflicts between its e-commerce business and AWS, and to prevent Facebook and Google from gaining unfair competitive advantages through enormous data troves spanning across their vast portfolios. But break up alone won’t solve our problems. We also need to pursue regulation, and really examine the profit models that drive these companies to such extractive practices in the first place.
We have a tremendous amount of momentum on these issues in Washington right now. Tomorrow, the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee is hosting its first hearing in a series focused on proposals to address gatekeeper power and revive competition, building off its report from the last Congress. The federal government and many state attorneys general have filed antitrust lawsuits against Facebook and Google to tackle the excessive market power that these companies hold.
Many Anti-Monopoly Fund grantees such as the Athena Coalition, Freedom From Facebook & Google, Fight for the Future, and Color of Change are leading the fight to rein in these companies. Check out their work and sign on to help. We must keep up the pressure to ensure that our government agencies pursue strong enforcement actions, while also pushing for new legislation that will pave the way for structural solutions to create a level playing field and create a more equitable economy.
If you use Big Tech Detective for five minutes, it is astonishing. If you try to use it for thirty minutes, it is infuriating. And if you try using it for any longer, it can only convince you of one thing: big tech monopolies are unavoidable online. We need sweeping, structural change, and we need it now.