Tech policy wars reach new levels of salience when tech companies take sides, warring against each other not in the free market but on the battleground of ideas—and media buys. Of all the individual wars shaping the future of internet governance, perhaps the one most likely to result in a transformation of the status quo––for better or worse––is the battle of the internet versus itself.

The boundaries of the internet ecosystem are often in the eye of the beholder, but for purposes of this piece, my focus is on user-facing retail internet services, and not on internet access services such as ISPs, nor infrastructure services such as content delivery networks (CDNs). Three active instances of infighting among the “edge” service providers within this scoping of the user-facing internet merit specific attention.

The first is the “clash of the titans” between Apple and Facebook, instigated by Apple’s App Tracking Transparency rules. These rules, not yet rolled out, require explicit opt-in user consent before an app made available through the iOS app store can share data with other apps, websites and services. Apple isn’t just rolling out a policy update quietly––the company made a splash on this January’s Data Privacy Day with a focus on the changes. Apple CEO Tim Cook has personally called out Facebook in context of these rules. For Facebook, this move cuts off a major source of revenue from the provision of “look-alike audiences”. Facebook countered Apple’s marketing campaign with its own to defend personalized advertising, while emphasizing the impact of Apple’s moves on small businesses. Now, sides in the battle are being chosen, in particular with privacy-first brands like my former employer Mozilla jumping to Apple’s side.

Although it may come at the cost of major media coverage, policy analysis of this debate must set aside the names of the companies and the faces of their executives and focus on the underlying issues––here, the technologies of tracking and the centrality of personalized advertising business models. I highlighted the war over tracking more than three years ago as it was starting to build in public policy circles, and it was also at the heart of the first post of this series. Simplifying tracking and personalization to a choice between Apple or Facebook does the internet at large a huge disservice. Critical to a positive outcome is engaging in depth with the substance of difficult technical, economic and regulatory issues.

The Apple-Facebook battle is brand new compared to the long-simmering disagreements between Google and Microsoft, which are broader in practice than any single issue. Australia is the newest battleground for those titans, and in particular the country’s News Media Bargaining Code, featured in the third post of this series. Microsoft has not only supported the Australian policy, but has also taken the ideas back to Europe and aligned itself with news publishers against Google there—one article even has “Microsoft throws Google under the bus” in its title. Google, meanwhile, sought to put Microsoft in the hot seat for a congressional hearing on the SolarWinds security problems––and that was even before the Microsoft Exchange breach. I understand the tactics; policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are constantly stretched thin with too much work and too few resources, so it’s advantageous for their attention to be focused on a different company and a different problem.

Finally, the internet is more than just the “frightful five.” Increasingly, tensions between smaller tech companies and their larger brethren are becoming public as well. For many years, these fights have been quietly conducted behind the scenes as the threat of reprisal in necessary business dealings loomed in the background. But a big break in the silence arrived in January 2020 at the House antitrust field hearing in Boulder, Colorado, when executives of Sonos, PopSockets, Basecamp and Tile testified to a range of challenges including allegations of differential technical treatment, product copying and unfair corporate dealing. Sonos has also sued Google, and in 2019 the Swedish company Spotify filed an antitrust complaint against Apple with the European Commission—Yelp, of course, is the “OG” antagonist of big tech, and has been vocal for many years. When these fights are conducted through the media over the name brands of the companies involved—and the personalities of their executives—rather than relevant technical and economic analysis, the outcomes will be worse off.

These three battles cover some of the most complex and challenging policy issues facing the internet today. All of them will influence how policymakers evaluate prospective new laws and regulations to govern a huge swath of our society and our economy. As a result, they risk becoming distractions from what should be clear guiding principles, such as ensuring the smooth functioning of market forces and promoting user agency and empowerment, while resisting both protectionism and paternalism.

Every story is more compelling with a villain, and the most nefarious villain in the war for internet governance is, in fact, the story itself.

This is the final post in the “Great War” series. Looking at the posts in totum, it seems clear that the internet we have today is far from perfect. But we need to resist the natural human tendency to find heroes and villains in every issue, and work together to develop real solutions that will help us build a healthy and sustainable internet future, because war is not the right way to reach good policy outcomes.

INTRODUCTION – The Great War for the future of internet governance has begun.

PART 1 – The Great War, Part 1: The Internet vs Democracy

PART 2 – The Great War: The Internet vs the Free Market

PART 3 – The Great War: The Internet vs Journalism

PART 4 – The Great War: The Internet vs Truth

PART 5 – The Great War, Part 5: The Internet vs Happiness

PART 6 – The Great War, Part 6: The Internet vs Itself

Image credit: 13_Phunkod

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