Event next week! Skeptech: Smile for the Camera is coming up on Thursday, October 22, at 7pm Eastern. Tickets still available - sign up here.

Boasts, lies, and grammar mistakes: Big Tech's antitrust defense
By Mark Hurst • October 15, 2020

I'm still basking in the good news from last week. As I wrote in Glimmers of hope in a constricting moment, the antitrust report from Congress was a huge advance toward addressing Big Tech's exploitation of all of us. (The column, by the way, generated almost no feedback. Was it the cranberry juice video, mellowing everyone out?)

The antitrust report hit its mark. I know this because all four Big Tech companies gave public responses to defend themselves against the 450-page indictment of their abusive behavior. Seeing their responses, I had one thought:

Is this the best you can do?

Really, now. The antitrust report is arguably the strongest challenge to Big Tech dominance - ever - and it signals Congress's serious intent to begin antitrust proceedings. There's a lot riding on this moment. The tech giants employ the highest-paid PR teams in the world, the all-stars of spin, or more accurately here, of turd-polishing. And what they came up with was, let's say, not very polished.

Amazon's defense

Amazon wrote a blog post that included this sprawling, grammatically incorrect sentence: "What these misguided notions from some subcommittee staff misunderstand is the fact that third parties having the opportunity to sell right alongside a retailer's products is the very competition that most benefits consumers and has made the marketplace model so successful for third-party sellers."

Uhh... what?

I think this word salad is suggesting that, while Amazon may illegally exploit its third-party sellers, it sure has low prices. That's a pretty lame defense, but to be fair, there's really no excuse for what Amazon does: read How Amazon Screws Third-Party Sellers or watch this short video of Jeff Bezos getting roasted by Congress back in July for that very behavior.

Google's defense

Google wrote a blog post confidently announcing the desires of an entire country: "Americans simply don't want Congress to break Google's products or harm the free services they use every day." See? 330 million of us simply don't want to leave Google's chokehold! Easy as that.

I'll grant that Google achieved correct grammar (maybe Amazon could hire a copy editor?) but past that: pretty shabby. If we want to throw around the word "simply," let's say this: Google's search is simply a pay-to-play scam with surveillance baked in. Non-toxic alternatives like DuckDuckGo are growing fast, as people learn how Google operates.

Apple's defense

Apple issued a statement trying to defend its exploitative 30% cut of developer revenue, saying this: "Apple's commission rates are firmly in the mainstream of those charged by other app stores." I nearly spit out my coffee on that one. Just like other app stores? There are only two of them! Apple and Google are a cartel.

Google charges the same usurious 30% because Apple got away with it first. Apple saying its 30% cut is "firmly in the mainstream" is sort of like the bank robber saying, "OK, maybe I took some money out of the vault, but don't blame me! There's another bank robber in the vault doing the same thing." Really, Apple, pointing to criminal #2 is no defense for your own theft.

A trillion-dollar company making excuses like a toddler. Is this the best they can do?

But I've left the best for last. Of all the Big Tech responses, the biggest assault on truth came, as always, from King Zuck.

Facebook's defense

Facebook issued a brief statement saying that "Facebook is an American success story." Uh - surveillance, manipulation, exploitation, racism, and genocide? This is what Facebook calls an American success story?

I'd like to point out to Zuck, or whichever of his minions wrote that little statement, that American success has been tarnished by Facebook. The growth-at-any-cost approach, in the process of making a few people rich, has also empowered authoritarians, widened inequality, and threatened democracy worldwide. Calling that an American success story is deeply cynical. I wonder if that's how Facebook meant it.

But maybe I'm overreacting. I know, I know, we have to take PR pronouncements with a grain of salt. Companies defending their brand with a bit of puffery is a time-honored practice. But these companies are too powerful, and their behavior is too dangerous, for us to tolerate such clueless and deceptive responses like these. If this is "the best they can do," then it's time we showed them the best we can do.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write more about the people, organizations, and tools that are providing alternatives to Big Tech's hegemony. The congressional antitrust report came from one such group, but there are lots of others doing good work. They deserve support, because Big Tech is still growing.

It's spreading in New York

Recalling my column from August 6, It's a stickup, about Big Tech's infiltration of Manhattan real estate, I was sorry to see this update: Manhattan Emptied Out During the Pandemic. But Big Tech Is Moving In (Matthew Haag in the NYT, Oct 13). The story includes the map below, which could have the caption:

The red dots show where it's spreading.

The cluster of red dots in Chelsea is all Google buildings (and a Google pier). Disturbing.

It's not just New York. Over in San Jose, Google is designing its own company city. Jathan Sadowski points out that it looks like a copy+paste job from Sidewalk Toronto, Google's (thankfully) failed attempt to build a surveillance city there. Listen to my interview with Sadowski on the May 11 episode of Techtonic. The interview starts at 15:55.

Event next Thursday

You're invited to my Zoom event next week on Thursday, October 22, at 7pm Eastern. This is a little like a mini version of my Gel conference, over Zoom, this time with a theme of cameras and surveillance. Hope you'll join me.

Skeptech: Smile for the Camera is an interactive Zoom event featuring these presenters:
- Andy Deemer with a Zoom magic show
- Faine Greenwood, consumer drone expert
- a People Like Us video about surveillance
- with yours truly as host.

Sign up here.

Fun Stuff

Finally, fall fun. (Feline.)

1. "When I walk outside and the leaves are crunchy." Turn the sound up.

2. And this:

3. One more, by Hua Junwu. (As the kids say: I feel seen!)

As always, if you want to share these thoughts, please tell your friends to subscribe. Read my past columns here.

Also, I think you'd enjoy my Techtonic podcast - take a listen.

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst
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Email: mark@creativegood.com
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