Tag Archives: internet monopolies

Who Controls Peoples’ Data?

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that cross-border flows of goods, services and data added 10 per cent to global gross domestic product in the decade to 2015, with data providing a third of that increase. That share of the contribution seems likely to rise: conventional trade has slowed sharply, while digital flows have surged. Yet as the whole economy becomes more information-intensive — even heavy industries such as oil and gas are becoming data-driven — the cost of blocking those flows increases…

Yet that is precisely what is happening. Governments have sharply increased “data localisation” measures requiring information to be held in servers inside individual countries. The European Centre for International Political Economy, a think-tank, calculates that in the decade to 2016, the number of significant data localisation measures in the world’s large economies nearly tripled from 31 to 84.

Even in advanced economies, exporting data on individuals is heavily restricted because of privacy concerns, which have been highlighted by the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal. Many EU countries have curbs on moving personal data even to other member states. Studies for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, an independent research project, estimates that current constraints — such as restrictions on moving data on banking, gambling and tax records — reduces EU GDP by half a per cent.

In China, the champion data localiser, restrictions are even more severe. As well as long-established controls over technology transfer and state surveillance of the population, such measures form part of its interventionist “ Made in China 2025 ” industrial strategy, designed to make it a world leader in tech-heavy sectors such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

China’s Great Firewall has long blocked most foreign web applications, and a cyber security law passed in 2016 also imposed rules against exporting personal information, forcing companies including Apple and LinkedIn to hold information on Chinese users on local servers. Beijing has also given itself a variety of powers to block the export of “important data” on grounds of reducing vaguely defined economic, scientific or technological risks to national security or the public interest.   “The likelihood that any company operating in China will find itself in a legal blind spot where it can freely transfer commercial or business data outside the country is less than 1 per cent,” says ECIPE director Hosuk Lee-Makiyama….

Other emerging markets, such as Russia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, are also leading data localisers. Russia has blocked LinkedIn from operating there after it refused to transfer data on Russian users to local servers.

Business organisations including the US Chamber of Commerce want rules to restrain what they call “digital protectionism”. But data trade experts point to a serious hole in global governance, with a coherent approach prevented by different philosophies between the big trading powers. Susan Aaronson, a trade academic at George Washington University in Washington, DC, says: “There are currently three powers — the EU, the US and China — in the process of creating separate data realms.”

The most obvious way to protect international flows of data is in trade deals — whether multilateral, regional or bilateral. Yet only the World Trade Organization laws governing data flows predate the internet and have not been thoroughly tested through litigation. It recently recruited Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma to front an ecommerce initiative, but officials involved admit it is unlikely to produce anything concrete for a long time. In any case, Prof Aaronson says: “While data has traditionally been addressed in trade deals as an ecommerce issue, it goes far wider than that.”

The internet has always been regarded by pioneers and campaigners as a decentralised, self-regulating community. Activists have tended to regard government intervention with suspicion, except for its role in protecting personal data, and many are wary of legislation to enable data flows.  “While we support the approach of preventing data localisation, we need to balance that against other rights such as data protection, cyber security and consumer rights,” says Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign for internet freedom…

Europe has traditionally had a very different philosophy towards data and privacy than the US. In Germany, for instance, public opinion tends to support strict privacy laws — usually attributed to lingering memories of surveillance by the Stasi secret police in East Germany. The EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on May 25, 2018 imposes a long list of requirements on companies processing personal data on pain of fines that could total as much as 4 per cent of annual turnover….But trade experts warn that the GDPR is very cautiously written, with a blanket exemption for measures claiming to protect privacy. Mr Lee-Makiyama says: “The EU text will essentially provide no meaningful restriction on countries wanting to practice data localisation.”

Against this political backdrop, the prospects for broad and binding international rules on data flow are dim. …In the battle for dominance over setting rules for commerce, the EU and US often adopt contrasting approaches.  While the US often tries to export its product standards in trade diplomacy, the EU tends to write rules for itself and let the gravity of its huge market pull other economies into its regulatory orbit. Businesses faced with multiple regulatory regimes will tend to work to the highest standard, known widely as the “Brussels effect”.  Companies such as Facebook have promised to follow GDPR throughout their global operations as the price of operating in Europe.

Excerpts from   Data protectionism: the growing menace to global business, Financial Times, May 13, 2018

From Subversive to Submissive: the internet

The corridor where WWW was born. CERN, ground floor of building No.1

Free-Speech advocates were aghast—and data-privacy campaigners were delighted—when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) embraced the idea of a digital “right to be forgotten” in May 2014. It ruled that search engines such as Google must not display links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about people if they request that they be removed, even if the information is correct and was published legally.

The uproar will be even louder should France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, soon decide against Google. The firm currently removes search results only for users in the European Union. But France’s data-protection authority, CNIL, says this is not enough: it wants Google to delete search links everywhere. Europe’s much-contested right to be forgotten would thus be given global reach. The court… may hand down a verdict by January.

The spread of the right to be forgotten is part of a wider trend towards the fragmentation of the internet. Courts and governments have embarked on what some call a “legal arms race” to impose a maze of national or regional rules, often conflicting, in the digital realm
The internet has always been something of a subversive undertaking. As a ubiquitous, cross-border commons, it often defies notions of state sovereignty. A country might decide to outlaw a certain kind of service—a porn site or digital currency, say—only to see it continue to operate from other, more tolerant jurisdictions.

As long as cyberspace was a sideshow, governments did not much care. But as it has penetrated every facet of life, they feel compelled to control it. The internet—and even more so cloud computing, ie, the storage of vast amounts of data and the supply of myriad services online—has become the world’s über-infrastructure. It is creating great riches: according to the Boston Consulting Group, the internet economy (e-commerce, online services and data networks, among other things) will make up 5.3% of GDP this year in G20 countries. But it also comes with costs beyond the erosion of sovereignty. These include such evils as copyright infringement, cybercrime, the invasion of privacy, hate speech, espionage—and perhaps cyberwar.

IIn response, governments are trying to impose their laws across the whole of cyberspace. The virtual and real worlds are not entirely separate. The term “cloud computing” is misleading: at its core are data centres the size of football fields which have to be based somewhere….

New laws often include clauses with extraterritorial reach. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will apply from 2018 to all personal information on European citizens, even if the company holding it is based abroad.

In many cases, laws seek to keep data within, or without, national borders. China has pioneered the blocking of internet addresses with its Great Firewall, but the practice has spread to the likes of Iran and Russia. Another approach is “data localisation” requirements, which mandate that certain types of digital information must be stored locally or remain in the country. A new law in Russia, for instance, requires that the personal information of Russian citizens is kept in national databases…Elsewhere, though, data-localisation polices are meant to protect citizens from snooping by foreign powers. Germany has particularly stringent data-protection laws which hamper attempts by the European Commission, the EU’s civil service, to reduce regulatory barriers to the free flow of data between member-states.

Fragmentation caused by government action would be less of a concern if other factors were not also pushing in the same direction–new technologies, such as firewalls and a separate “dark web”, which is only accessible using a special browser. Commercial interests, too, are a dividing force. Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants try to keep users in their own “walled gardens”. Many online firms “geo-block” their services, so that they cannot be used abroad….

Internet experts distinguish between governance “of” the internet (all of the underlying technical rules that make it tick) and regulation “on” the internet (how it is used and by whom). The former has produced a collection of “multi-stakeholder” organisations, the best-known of which are ICANN, which oversees the internet’s address system, and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which comes up with technical standards…..

Finding consensus on technical problems, where one solution often is clearly better than another, is easier than on legal and political matters. One useful concept might be “interoperability”: the internet is a network of networks that follow the same communication protocols, even if the structure of each may differ markedly.

Excerpts from Online governance: Lost in the splinternet, Economist, Nov. 5, 2016

The Nationalization of Internet

Seeking to cut dependence on companies such as Google, Microsoft, and LinkedIn, Putin in recent years has urged the creation of domestic versions of everything from operating systems and e-mail to microchips and payment processing. Putin’s government says Russia needs protection from U.S. sanctions, bugs, and any backdoors built into hardware or software. “It’s a matter of national security,” says Andrey Chernogorov, executive secretary of the State Duma’s commission on strategic information systems. “Not replacing foreign IT would be equivalent to dismissing the army.”

Since last year, Russia has required foreign internet companies to store Russian clients’ data on servers in the country. In January 2016 the Kremlin ordered government agencies to use programs for office applications, database management, and cloud storage from an approved list of Russian suppliers or explain why they can’t—a blow to Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle. Google last year was ordered to allow Android phone makers to offer a Russian search engine. All four U.S. companies declined to comment.

And a state-backed group called the Institute of Internet Development is holding a public contest for a messenger service to compete with text and voice apps like WhatsApp and Viber. Russia’s Security Council has criticized the use of those services by state employees over concerns that U.S. spies could monitor the encrypted communications while Russian agencies can’t,,

On Nov. 10, 2016, Russia’s communications watchdog said LinkedIn would be blocked for not following the data-storage rules….. That same day, the Communications Ministry published draft legislation that would create a state-controlled body to monitor .ru domains and associated IP addresses. The proposal would also mandate that Russian internet infrastructure be owned by local companies and that cross-border communication lines be operated only by carriers subject to Russian regulation…

The biggest effect of the Kremlin’s internet campaign can be seen in the Moscow city administration, which is testing Russian-made e-mail and calendar software MyOffice Mail on 6,000 machines at City Hall. The city aims to replace Microsoft Outlook with the homegrown alternative, from Moscow-based New Cloud Technologies, on as many as 600,000 computers in schools, hospitals, and local agencies….“Money from Russian taxpayers and state-controlled companies should be spent primarily on domestic software,” Communications Minister Nikolay Nikiforov told reporters in September. “It’s a matter of jobs, of information security, and of our strategic leadership in IT.”

Excerpts from Microsoft Isn’t Feeling Any Russian Thaw, Bloomberg, Nov. 17, 2016

America Inc. and its Moat

moat

Warren Buffett, the 21st century’s best-known investor, extols firms that have a “moat” around them—a barrier that offers stability and pricing power.One way American firms have improved their moats in recent times is through creeping consolidation. The Economist has divided the economy into 900-odd sectors covered by America’s five-yearly economic census. Two-thirds of them became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 (see charts 2 and 3). The weighted average share of the top four firms in each sector has risen from 26% to 32%…

These data make it possible to distinguish between sectors of the economy that are fragmented, concentrated or oligopolistic, and to look at how revenues have fared in each case. Revenues in fragmented industries—those in which the biggest four firms together control less than a third of the market—dropped from 72% of the total in 1997 to 58% in 2012. Concentrated industries, in which the top four firms control between a third and two-thirds of the market, have seen their share of revenues rise from 24% to 33%. And just under a tenth of the activity takes place in industries in which the top four firms control two-thirds or more of sales. This oligopolistic corner of the economy includes niche concerns—dog food, batteries and coffins—but also telecoms, pharmacies and credit cards.

The ability of big firms to influence and navigate an ever-expanding rule book may explain why the rate of small-company creation in America is close to its lowest mark since the 1970s … Small firms normally lack both the working capital needed to deal with red tape and long court cases, and the lobbying power that would bend rules to their purposes….

Another factor that may have made profits stickier is the growing clout of giant institutional shareholders such as BlackRock, State Street and Capital Group. Together they own 10-20% of most American companies, including ones that compete with each other. Claims that they rig things seem far-fetched, particularly since many of these funds are index trackers; their decisions as to what to buy and sell are made for them. But they may well set the tone, for example by demanding that chief executives remain disciplined about pricing and restraining investment in new capacity. The overall effect could mute competition.

The cable television industry has become more tightly controlled, and many Americans rely on a monopoly provider; prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past five years. Consolidation in one of Mr Buffett’s favourite industries, railroads, has seen freight prices rise by 40% in real terms and returns on capital almost double since 2004. The proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont, announced last December, illustrates the trend to concentration. //

Roughly another quarter of abnormal profits comes from the health-care industry, where a cohort of pharmaceutical and medical-equipment firms make aggregate returns on capital of 20-50%. The industry is riddled with special interests and is governed by patent rules that allow firms temporary monopolies on innovative new drugs and inventions. Much of health-care purchasing in America is ultimately controlled by insurance firms. Four of the largest, Anthem, Cigna, Aetna and Humana, are planning to merge into two larger firms.

The rest of the abnormal profits are to be found in the technology sector, where firms such as Google and Facebook enjoy market shares of 40% or more

But many of these arguments can be spun the other way. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon are not being valued by investors as if they are high risk, but as if their market shares are sustainable and their network effects and accumulation of data will eventually allow them to reap monopoly-style profits. (Alphabet is now among the biggest lobbyists of any firm, spending $17m last year.)…

Perhaps antitrust regulators will act, forcing profits down. The relevant responsibilities are mostly divided between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), although some …[But]Lots of important subjects are beyond their purview. They cannot consider whether the length and security of patents is excessive in an age when intellectual property is so important. They may not dwell deeply on whether the business model of large technology platforms such as Google has a long-term dependence on the monopoly rents that could come from its vast and irreproducible stash of data. They can only touch upon whether outlandishly large institutional shareholders with positions in almost all firms can implicitly guide them not to compete head on; or on why small firms seem to be struggling. Their purpose is to police illegal conduct, not reimagine the world. They lack scope.

Nowhere has the alternative approach been articulated. It would aim to unleash a burst of competition to shake up the comfortable incumbents of America Inc. It would involve a serious effort to remove the red tape and occupational-licensing schemes that strangle small businesses and deter new entrants. It would examine a loosening of the rules that give too much protection to some intellectual-property rights. It would involve more active, albeit cruder, antitrust actions. It would start a more serious conversation about whether it makes sense to have most of the country’s data in the hands of a few very large firms. It would revisit the entire issue of corporate lobbying, which has become a key mechanism by which incumbent firms protect themselves.

Excerpts from Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016, at 23

Your Biometric Data in Corporate Hands: the class action against Facebook

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Secretly amassed the world’s largest private held database of peoples’ biometric data

A federal judge has dismissed a class action lawsuit against Facebook after the California-based social media site claimed there was a lack of personal jurisdiction in Illinois.The plaintiff in the case, Fredrick William Gullen, filed the complaint alleging violations of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Gullen is not a Facebook user, but he alleged that his image was uploaded to the site and that his biometric identifiers and biometric information was collected, stored and used by Facebook without his consent. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, implemented in 2008, regulates the collection, use, and storage of biometric identifiers and biometric information such as scans of face or hand geometry. The act specifically excludes photographs, demographic information, and physical descriptions….

In the Facebook case, no ruling has been made on whether the information on Facebook counts as biometric identifiers and biometric information under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Instead, the judge agreed with Facebook that the case could not be tried in Illinois.

However, the company is currently facing a proposed class action in California relating to some of the same questions….How the California class action will play out remains to be seen. California does not yet have a clear policy on biometric privacy.A bill pending in the state’s legislature would extend the scope of the data security law to include biometric data as well as geophysical location, but it has not yet become law.  The question of privacy in regards to biometric information is one that has garnered increasing attention in recent months. On Feb. 4, 2016 the Biomterics Institute, an independent research and analysis organization, released revised guidelines comprising 16 privacy principles for companies that gather and use biometrics data.

Excerpts from Emma Gallimore, Federal judge boots Illinois biometrics class action against Facebook, Legal Newswire, Feb. 22, 2016, 12:15pm

See also the case (pdf)

Internet and Facebook are the Same and No Shame

download

And then there’s Free Basics, the two-year-old project Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has called an online 911. In about three dozen developing countries so far, Free Basics—also known as Internet.org—includes a stripped-down version of Facebook and a handful of sites that provide news, weather, nearby health-care options, and other info. One or two carriers in a given country offer the package for free at slow speeds, betting that it will help attract new customers who’ll later upgrade to pricier data plans…

Facebook says Free Basics is meant to make the world more open and connected, not to boost the company’s growth….On Dec. 21, 2016,  the Indian government suspended the program, offered in the country by carrier Reliance Communications….

“Who could possibly be against this?”
Opponents, including some journalists and businesspeople, say Free Basics is dangerous because it fundamentally changes the online economy. If companies are allowed to buy preferential treatment from carriers, the Internet is no longer a level playing field, says Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Indian mobile-payment company Paytm....“We don’t see Free Basics as philanthropy. We see it as a land grab, says Pahwa.

[On Feb. 8, 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled against Facebook’s scheme.]

Adi Narayan, Facebook’s Fight to Be Free, Bloomberg Business Week, Jan. 14, 2016

Who is Afraid of Google?

image from wikipedia

[Some] worry that Google could prove to be the ultimate digital monopoly. They do not think that its reason for being is primarily online search or the advertising business; they see it as being in the business of mining any and all data it can accumulate for new profit streams. The data hunger such a goal demands is the main reason, they argue, why Google is entering markets as diverse as self-driving cars, smart homes, robotics and health care. “Google is trying to leverage the advantage it has in one area into many others,” says Nathan Newman, a lawyer and technology activist. The idea is that Google could use its assets—its data, its unparalleled ability to exploit those data, its brilliant employees and knack for managing them—to take control of other industries.

For such a data-centric conglomerate to get ever more dominant seems against the flow of history and intuitively unlikely. But intuitive views of the direction of internet competition have been wrong before, as the existence of giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook bears witness. And should it show signs of coming to pass, the current antitrust skirmishes will give way to an epic battle on the scale of the one against Standard Oil. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” said John Sherman, the senator who gave his name to America’s original antitrust law, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” Even one that makes things very, very easy.

Excerpt from Internet monopolies: Everybody wants to rule the world, Economist, Nov. 29, 2014. at 19