We Can Have a Better Internet If We Allow Competition to Flourish

Charlotte Slaiman / Jan 20, 2022

Bad medical advice. Faulty products. Political division. Perpetual surveillance.

When we think of the internet today, we're more likely to think of these problems than the type of internet that brings us joy, genuine human connection, quality information, and efficiency. We have lost our imagination for what the internet can be. Big Tech would like you to believe the internet we have is the only way the internet could be. That this is the inevitable result of capitalism, human nature, and technical limitations. They are wrong. The internet doesn’t have to be this way – we can make it better.

We no longer have an internet that is open enough for two college kids in a garage to start The Next Big Thing. The best paths to market are gated off by powerful companies, and you need to convince those gatekeepers to let you in before you can reach any meaningful number of people with your big idea. As a result, these problems with the internet stay problems instead of becoming the impetus for exciting new solutions.

In a competitive industry, problems that consumers face often get a lot of research and development money focused on solving them. In an industry where just a few companies– like the Big Tech platforms– control access to consumers, there isn’t that same incentive. A Big Tech company might show you an impressive research and development budget, but dominant firms only innovate “solutions” that maintain their market power.

Competition is the best mechanism we have to make corporations do what we want instead of what they want. Any company that knows we can choose an alternative must work hard every day to earn our business. That might look like working harder to prevent or respond to scandals like privacy violations or mistreating workers, since reputational damage might actually spur customers to choose an alternative platform. Or it might look more practical, like being able to change defaults on your iPhone or not having to wade through less relevant stuff at the top of Google before you find what you need. Even more importantly, if a new competitor has a better idea, we as users should have easy access to that alternative option and decide for ourselves what product we want to support.

Big Tech would like you to believe the internet we have is the only way the internet could be. That this is the inevitable result of capitalism, human nature, and technical limitations. They are wrong.

Right now, Big Tech firms – Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple – utilize their own platforms to thwart competition. These platforms gained users by claiming they are identifying the best options for you, the user. But over time, as they expanded their user bases and increased their power, their incentives changed. Now it's often worth it to these largest platforms to feature products or services that benefit them instead of you.

There are two ways a Big Tech platform might put its thumb on the scale to benefit itself over its users. If it owns a product that competes on its platform then it might promote its own product over others. Or, if a competitor’s product poses a competitive threat to the platform itself, the platform might want to demote that product or otherwise make it difficult for that product to succeed.

Dr. Susan Athey, one of the foremost experts on digital platform economics, spoke about this second concern at the Federal Trade Commission in 2018. Often, the very companies that rely on a platform to reach their customers are some of the best potential competitors to the platform itself. Offering just one piece of what a platform offers – one “vertical” – such as local reviews or Bluetooth trackers, is “the main viable entry path to compete” with these powerful platforms.

In a space that already has so little competition, even potential competition from companies significantly smaller than the big platforms may be the only competitive pressure these platforms face. This is why it’s crucial to give those competitors a chance.

Fortunately, Congress is taking steps to level the playing field for competitors and consumers. This week, Senators Klobuchar (D-MN) and Grassley (R-IA) are marking up their “American Innovation and Choice Online Act” to force Big Tech to play by the same rules as the small businesses and startups that rely on them. Passing this bill would mean that your search results would display what’s best for you as opposed to what’s best for the platform you’re searching on. It would mean that the best options would once again rise to the top.

We all want different things from the internet, and to meet our diverse needs, we need a diversity of options. Giving startups and small businesses a chance to compete fairly both on and against Big Tech platforms would go a long way toward helping us create a better internet -- one that prioritizes us over Big Tech’s profits.

Senators Klobuchar and Grassley have introduced a proposal that could help us realize this better internet. They're not breaking open Big Tech's gates, but they are betting that some college kids in a garage can break them open on their own -- if we give them a fair shot.


Charlotte Slaiman
Charlotte Slaiman is Competition Policy Director at Public Knowledge and a former enforcement attorney at the Federal Trade Commission.