Commentary: Don't tread on our competitors and suppliers

©Tribune News Service

A sign is posted on the exterior of Google headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Mountain View, California. - Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/TNS

As a new and growing social media platform, Parler has experienced firsthand some of the types of misconduct by Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google detailed in the recently released House Antitrust Report on Big Tech. You might think that if anyone would support the solutions offered by the House Democrats and Republicans — as well as the just-filed antitrust suit against Google — it would be us.

Apple once threatened to remove Parler from its app store unless we agreed to remove from our platform member-generated content that it deemed offensive. The company will not permit us to implement part of our monetization strategy — an infrastructure allowing Parler members to tip one another for content they like — unless it is given a 30% cut. A tip from one community member to another doesn’t sound like the typical “in-app purchase,” but then again, neither do other recent examples.

Google has, at crucial points in our company’s growth, throttled the delivery of our emails to Gmail users. And while its subsidiary, YouTube, allows Parler to be an “API client” — enabling our community members to seamlessly integrate content hosted by the leader in online video streaming — this comes at a price. Parler itself, on principle, collects only the minimum data necessary in order to provide services to our community. However, YouTube — i.e., Google — collects and integrates into its informational panopticon whatever data it can grab about anyone who shares or interacts with a YouTube video on Parler. No doubt this information helps Google maintain its dominant market share with respect to search, which is the focus of the antitrust suit.

As for Facebook, sure, it banned links to our Erasebook.info website mere minutes after we launched it, but that’s to be expected. After all, we’re a competitor. What’s more interesting is the recent attempt at a smear campaign by a new “independent research group” that is being featured by Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, and reportedly “works closely with mainstream platforms such as Facebook.” Our crime? Refusing to take action against a small and ineffective network of accounts in contravention of a “bipartisan consensus.”

The message from all of these market leaders is, apparently, something like this:

“Do not compete with our policies or philosophies. Adopt them with respect to content curation and data mining. Don’t dare to adopt a different monetization strategy. Follow us in making community members into commodities rather than allowing them to monetize themselves. You may compete only with respect to your product’s features, user interface, or technology. (Oh, and as we all learned in the report, if you do manage to come up with something innovative, we’ll buy you up or somehow absorb the innovation anyway.)”

All of the above notwithstanding, it would be wrong — and also harmful to innovators like us and to consumers — to introduce more government force into these markets. Yet this is what both the majority and minority reports suggest. The only difference between the two is in the flavors of government intervention recommended.

The long-term judgment of the individual consumers who once rightly elevated Apple, Google and Facebook over their competitors must continue to reward innovators who offer newer, better (and, yes, freer) alternatives. If one believes, as we do, that the best way to achieve optimal human knowledge and welfare is to allow individuals to think for themselves, then relying on big, strong, powerful government agencies to solve problems by restricting consumer choice — even when the companies in question are not violating anyone’s rights — is unacceptable.

Breaking up or regulating these Big Tech companies would be a wrongful initiation of force. Regulation would also exacerbate the problems by creating more barriers to entry for innovators. Plus, as one commentator observed, it would make companies in the information sector more subject to federal government control. It was a relatively free market that saw these four companies go from garage-based businesses to powerful tech giants. If and when they are supplanted by alternatives that consumers — who are learning more about the pitfalls of online life every day — are more comfortable with, that same free market is our best hope.

Moreover, a vast web of new tech regulation is not even necessary. The reason Facebook recently tried to call Apple out about its app store “commissions” is likely because Apple’s iOS 14 is making it more difficult for Facebook to add user data to its own informational panopticon. It shows how even if it seems that no social media platform can compete with Facebook, its monetization strategy could slowly become obsolete as it is cut off, increasingly, from scores of fresh, relevant data about its users and its users’ contacts. (And vice-versa for Apple’s app store “commission” policy.)

Some government action might be appropriate in response to the problems identified in the report. For example, one of the proposals — mandating user data portability — seems an appropriate way to address the concerns of those who believe that data should be treated strictly as one’s property. At the very least, an individual should have to clearly and explicitly relinquish control over data about oneself, before losing it.

And while some argue convincingly that editorializing and other publisher-like activities aren’t shielded by Section 230’s grant of legal immunity, even as currently written, certainly lawmakers could amend it and make this point abundantly clear. Then we would see more outcomes deemed appropriate by knowledgeable academics and judges. How is it proper for a company to monetize user-provided content, on the one hand, while claiming legal immunity from any suit based on that content, on the other? Benefit and responsibility should go hand in hand, and a narrowly construed Section 230 would help ensure this.

New entrants in the social media market, including Parler, require the ability to challenge the prevailing philosophies of Big Tech’s established players. Our competitors and suppliers have done much to stand in the way of this, but what they’ve done pales in comparison to what might be done by an overzealous, politically motivated government, if the authors of the antitrust report have their way. If more freedom and more competition are the goals, then they must also be the means.

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ABOUT THE WRITERS

Jeffrey Wernick is Parler’s COO and Amy Peikoff is Parler’s chief policy officer.

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