Giants behaving badly: Google, Facebook and Amazon show us the downside of monopolies and black-box algorithms

Giant holding man

The internet is a wondrous thing — a limitless universe of content and products and information, all of which can be summoned up from the comfort of a chair or the palm of the hand, like some sort of science-fiction dream from centuries ago. Unfortunately, the reality is that massive quasi-monopolies control a large part of that universe, and their self-interested choices and black-box algorithms shape and in some cases define what we see, what we can search for and what we can buy.

This week has brought lessons in all of those areas from Google, Amazon and Facebook, each one a cautionary tale about the sci-fi future we live in. So here’s a roundup of the latest bad behavior by the platforms we use (or are used by) as we go about our increasingly digital lives. If we’re missing any other good examples, please let us know in the comment section below.

Amazon throws its weight around

To take the most recent example first, the online bookseller has dramatically escalated its battle with Hachette, one of its suppliers, by not only showing the company’s titles as unavailable in some cases, but mucking around with how they are categorized, so that they are (presumably) more difficult to find. As our Laura Owen describes in her post on the issue, this is a clear example of the online retailer throwing its weight around simply because it can, and its behavior has drawn fire from many who see it as a monopolistic tactic:

Why it matters: Some argue that Amazon isn’t doing anything that different from what many retailers do when they are trying to put pressure on their suppliers — physical retailers like Walmart are notorious for squeezing the companies that supply their goods so that they can get better terms. But Amazon arguably has a market share in ebook sales that dwarfs anything in the “real” world, and by hiding or making it difficult to find specific titles (including a book about Amazon itself) it renders them literally unavailable in ways a physical store could not.

What you can do about it: To be honest, not that much. Obviously, searching for and buying books from other retailers is one way to fight back against Amazon’s behavior — but many other online outlets such as Barnes & Noble are unappealing, in part because competition from Amazon has forced them to cut back on the books they carry and has made them less useful.

Google’s black-box algorithm strikes again

The search giant is the undisputed king of the proprietary, unfathomable algorithm, and this week it showed again why that is a dangerous and frustrating thing, after Metafilter founder Matt Haughey described in detail how his 15-year-old online community — known for its high-quality content — saw its traffic decline sharply following an update to the Google indexing algorithm. Reliant on Google not only for the bulk of its traffic but also the bulk of its advertising revenue, Metafilter has had to lay off almost half of its staff.

Why it matters: Just as Amazon does for books, Google has a market share in both search and search-related advertising that dwarfs any of its competitors, and so it is the default way for users to find things. If you don’t appear until page five of the Google search results for a specific term, you might as well not exist at all. And because Google’s algorithm is proprietary, it says virtually nothing about why sites move up or down — even experts like Danny Sullivan can’t explain why Metafilter’s traffic fell by 40 percent, nor can they suggest how to correct it.

What you can do about it: You can use alternative search engines like Microsoft’s Bing or DuckDuckGo, as some do, but this will have little to no effect on Google’s dominance or the success or failure of sites like Metafilter. You could write to your congressman or the Federal Trade Commission, but antitrust is a blunt instrument when it comes to correcting such behavior, and usually winds up closing the door after the horses have long since left the barn.

Facebook makes things appear and disappear

We can thank director of product Mike Hudack for throwing a spotlight on the role that Facebook plays in what we see and/or read, with a post that criticized the media for focusing on shallow click-bait — a post that triggered a thousand responses from anguished journalists, complaining that Facebook itself helps determine what gets shared and what gets traffic, and so is partly to blame for the problem. On a related note, Facebook has also been criticized for making newsworthy posts about things like the Syrian war disappear, with little or no explanation about why, nor any avenue for appeal.

Why it matters: Facebook may not be on par with Amazon or Google (at least not yet), in part because the whole idea of a social platform is more nebulous than search or ebooks, and so it’s difficult to accuse it of having a monopoly on anything. But at the same time, it clearly plays a major role in driving users towards certain content, and the algorithm it uses to do that is Google-like, in the sense that we know virtually nothing about how it works, or why it prefers one type of content to another. That makes Facebook almost as bad as newspapers used to be.

What you can do about it: You can stop using Facebook, but that’s not going to stop a billion or so other people from using it, and therefore it’s not going to stop them clicking on what Facebook decides is newsworthy or not newsworthy, and driving traffic to those sites, and thereby helping to determine whether they live or die. And unlike Google or Amazon, there isn’t even much of a case for antitrust, because it’s not clear what market Facebook dominates.

These companies are not alone: Apple (as a commenter has noted) is also notorious for banning apps and services from its platform with little notice. So what can we do to blunt the force of this kind of behavior? For one thing, we can think about the repercussions of using the giant proprietary platforms we rely on, and maybe direct some of our time or attention or financial resources to others, in the hope that competition will be encouraged. As Columbia law professor Tim Wu (the man who coined the term “net neutrality”) argues in his book The Master Switch, the technology world often sees the pendulum swing back and forth between competition and oligopoly. All we can do is try to help it swing a little faster.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Design Pics


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