Data Utilities

Posted here (week 2376).

There are increasing calls to “break up” the big tech companies, from left-leaning politicians that distrust accumulation of power as well as thoughtful Santa Clarians who worry about the lack of oxygen for the capital ecosystem.

But how to carve them up is a subject of much disagreement. It’s too common to imagine that we ought to undo previous mergers, or separate brands.

I believe the outcome we seek ought to be sustainable regulation of utilities. When AT&T was turned into a foundational long-distance utility and a number of smaller consumers of that service. This model should be even easier to apply to companies that are built around the flow of data.

Facebook could have the user profiles and social graph abstracted to a utility that their newsfeed, photos, and communication apps use but also must be exposed on similar terms to competitors. Google’s search enginesWeb search ought to be a project of the Library of Congress, anyway.. mapping, Android, and ad network could be decoupled. Amazon could be prevented from reinventing the US postal service as a subsidiary.

Above all, regulating these modern utilities as such is an ongoing exercise that will require defining desired outcomes and risks, and managing against them. That’s a hard sell to a society that bought into libertarianism 4 decades ago, so we’re more likely to see exciting but unproductive battles akin to the old Microsoft antitrust battle.