The Access Act
Yesterday three Senators, Democrats Mark Warner (VA) and Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (MO), put forward new legislation aimed at opening up the markets in web services. Their proposed legislation is called The Access Act and you can read it in its entirety here.
First let me say that this is exactly the kind of regulation we need to deal with the growing monopoly powers of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc, etc.
When Liz Warren came out with her idea to breakup these large monopolies, I wrote here that I thought that would turn out to be bad policy and ineffective. I came back to this issue when Liz starting breaking out of the pack and leading the race to run against the President next year.
As I said in both of those blog posts, it is my view that the monopoly powers that Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc have do not stem from their size and market reach, they stem from the data monopolies they own about us and our online activities. Breaking these companies up into smaller parts does not solve that problem. As my partner Albert observed in a blog post last week, spinning Instagram out of Facebook will do nothing to reduce Instagram’s market power, which is massive in its own right.
What we need to do is to allow any company, large or small, to compete on a level playing field with these large monopolies and they way to do that is to force them to open up their platforms and data so that competitors can provide similar services.
Senator Mark Warner put out a long tweetstorm yesterday laying out the ideas behind this bill and I would like to highlight a few of them here.
Back in 2001, the FCC recognized that interoperability was key to competition and required then-dominant AOL to make its instant messaging service compatible with its competitors. https://t.co/vYMj5ShW63— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 22, 2019
The ACCESS Act has three main components that would apply to the largest tech platforms:— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 22, 2019
Here’s what that means in plain English:
First, consumers ought to have the ability to switch social media platforms and other online services without having to start from scratch. This idea of data portability would allow you to take all your data ~ including your cat videos ~ and move it to a different service.— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 22, 2019
Second, for data portability to really make a difference, we need to break down the anti-competitive barriers that companies put up to limit their competitors from interacting with their platforms.— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 22, 2019
This is the idea behind interoperability, the open exchange of information.
Third, we need to preserve delegatability — the idea that consumers should be able to allow a third-party service to manage their privacy settings across multiple platforms.— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 22, 2019
I am excited about all three of these ideas and they work together. You can’t do just one of them. But I am most excited about the third, delegation. My partner Albert calls this “the right to be represented by a bot” and it is critical to making all of this work.
Just when you thought government was lost and useless, someone inside the walls of power in Washington steps up and puts forward a set of ideas like this and you think “well someone actually gets it.” I am deeply grateful to Senators Warner, Blumenthal, and Hawley (and their staffs where so much of this work gets done) for their leadership here.
Finally, one complaint. The bill defines a term “large communications platform” and that is the entity it seeks to regulate. As currently defined in the bill, a service would have to have 100mm monthly active users to be considered a large communications platform. That number is way to high in my view. We ought to regulate companies in this way at much smaller sizes. 10mm MAUs is where I would start requiring this sort of thing and maybe ratchet up the requirements as they scale to 50mm, 100mm, and beyond.
But all of that can get sorted out as this bill is discussed, debated, and hopefully eventually made into law.
I hope Liz and the other candidates out there who want to use old techniques on new markets will read their colleagues’ bill, understand its importance, and start changing their tune on this issue. It is too important to get wrong.