Regulating Tech

By Mark Nuyens
8 min. read📜 Regulation

As big-tech companies face growing scrutiny for their monopolistic behavior, finding a solution that benefits everyone continues to remain a challenge. In the end, we all want a solution that promotes healthy competition, consumer choice, and technological diversity and innovation. However, to find the best path forward, I believe it's essential to examine the intricacies of technology rather than relying on idealistic but possibly impractical expectations from these tech giants.

With consumers being the primary focus, we should keep in mind that the way tech companies integrate regulations may well have the opposite effect. For instance, the notorious cookie law mandated websites to display intrusive pop-ups, causing user frustration. More recently, Facebook was ordered to offer a choice between an algorithmically ordered feed and a chronologically ordered one. Despite good intentions, most users will probably choose the algorithmic feed, which tailors content to their preferences.

Instead of trying to come up with unrealistic rules that may unintentionally harm users by allowing companies to exploit loopholes, perhaps we should consider exploring a more foundational solution that leverages open standards and non-commercial methods. Needless to say, this would take enormous time and effort, but it would allow tech companies to integrate these standards while maintaining their unique user experiences and users to switch between platforms without losing their personal data in the process.

I recently came across an intriguing article by IEEE Spectrum, essentially promoting the same principles. While the article undeniably presented some compelling arguments, I found myself questioning the author's approach in drawing comparisons between traditional tools and digital technologies, given how the latter has no physical boundaries and more layers of abstraction. In my view, this subtle difference is precisely what makes historical comparisons so difficult, and, perhaps more crucially, has allowed these tech companies to gather influence with minimal or no scrutiny.

While the issue of tech dominance is undeniably complex, I believe we shouldn’t underestimate the role of consumer education. By educating people about the diverse range of solutions available, free from the biases of Apple or Google, we may be able to reclaim our grounds while expanding our understanding of these technologies. For example, many web-based alternatives can handle tasks like photo storage, document editing, and graphic design, much like iCloud or Google provides. This also applies to more fundamental software, like operating systems. Linux, for example, is a free, powerful and open-source solution that often goes overlooked due to a lack of awareness. Have you ever seen a store selling laptops running Linux? That's my point.

Fundamentally, we should reevaluate the current tech landscape from the ground up to understand what Apple and other tech giants are providing exactly to grasp the context fully. This fresh perspective would help us cut through the jargon and security claims, often used to intimidate consumers and businesses. To simplify our understanding, we should start with basic questions about what devices, like the iPhone, truly are. Specifically, we should ask ourselves: is an iPhone just a physical device with a camera and a touchscreen? Or is it the underlying operating system and the ecosystem of apps? Or is it merely a brand? To most users, it's probably an indefinable magic wand that grants access to their digital world. However, a closer look reveals a complex web of components working together seamlessly.

One component is obviously the hardware, such as the case, camera, screen, and internal sensors. Nothing unusual here. But beyond that, software dominates, dictating how the device actually functions to the user. And that’s where things get tricky: changing the operating system or drivers is often not an option. The software closely integrates sensors, functions and personal data, making it the core of the user experience. This mixed integration, combined with additional native apps and services like iTunes, the App Store, and iCloud, creates a cohesive digital world that's not easily altered or replaced. The result is a system where rules transcend physical limitations, shaped and enforced by Apple, worth more than the sum of its parts.

In this context, the iPhone could be viewed as merely a physical gateway to this carefully designed digital universe. Users trust it, relying on what they are told by its creators. And this makes total sense. Reflecting on my experience as a loyal Apple user for over a decade, I truly enjoyed this synchronized and optimized experience, especially after using Windows for a long time. However, three years ago I realized that even if I wanted to explore alternatives, the path wasn't clear. A vast world of online and offline solutions existed, yet most people like me were unaware, simply because they trusted big tech companies with their data and solutions to handle everything for them through convenient defaults.

I believe we should not just scrutinize big-tech companies from the top down, but also examine the technologies underpinning these platforms, identify alternative, open solutions, and support them through funding. These solutions can then be integrated into more effective regulations while simultaneously educating consumers about their existence and how they work. This approach could empower users to make informed choices, helping to build a future that's more inclusive, innovative, and supportive of smaller developers who can create unique and engaging solutions we might otherwise never have imagined.

In the end, it’s all about breaking free from walled gardens and offering users a broader range of options while still allowing for innovation through standardization. Perhaps this will prove to be an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, but it’s also rewarding and in the process, perhaps we might even enjoy the journey, just as much as we will enjoy the destination.

Update November 20st, 2023

Apparently, Apple agreed to be supprting RCS as part of new EU regulations. For those who don't know, RCS is the successor of SMS and will be able to provide a whole range of new possibilities that weren't possible before, from sending high-resolution media to other features commonly seen in popular instant messaging apps, like Whatsapp. In any case, this new standard for communucation is an excellent example of how to regulate tech from the bottom up and I find it refreshing to see both the EU creating these rules and companies the size of Apple comply by it.