This is not the typical exaltation interview of technology. Neither of complaisant speeches with the new economy. Nick Srnicek (Canada, 1982), professor at King's College London and author of the book Platform capitalism (Black Box), openly affirms his academic and political communism. An unusual position in an environment such as technology.
Your solutions to the power amassed by large companies, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, have nothing to do with the increase of competitiveness. Rather the complete opposite. "We have to go back to traditional tools such as public regulation and public ownership," he said during the interview prior to the Technology and Society event, organized by EL PAÍS RETINA and in which he intervened. Srnicek. Vehement, concise, precise verb and easy example, this Canadian does not know if his postulates will triumph as the workers revolution of past centuries; although more than one already has it present like third route before as much digital empire.
Why is it so difficult to offer unorthodox visions about the digital environment that surrounds us?
Google and Amazon have been in the market for 20 years, but their business model is recent. We have not adapted our economic analyzes to understand what they do and who they are. Another important factor is that we have standardized ideas in our imagination. For example, we think that Amazon is an e-commerce company when it is not. It is a company of cloud. All its benefit comes from AWS, which is its division for cloud computing. This would be a part of why it is so complicated to have a different thought.
What is the thought then generalized to society?
The one in Silicon Valley: move faster than the rest and break the sectors. Companies like Uber or Airbnb have reached all cities and have caused the disruption of entire industries. However, in the case of Airbnb, housing prices have skyrocketed and with Uber there is increasing traffic, which increases pollution. But this has already happened and now is when it seems that we have to catch up … and we are late to reverse it.
Only the legislator's inaction has led them to have all the power you describe?
They have gained their power through what I would call natural reasons. They are platforms businesses that the more people use them, the greater the benefit they get and the greater the value for everyone in these platforms. It's like a kind of market in which the winner takes everything. Think of the Google search engine. The more people use it, the better the search engine is, which means that a supposed virtuous circle is created in which everyone ends up using it.
And all the great technologists have benefited from this virtuous circle?
They have also used artificial elements to consolidate their power. Basically, buying competitors. Facebook did the same with Instagram and WhatsApp and Google with Appways. Acquire startups or, what is the same, they pay to have innovation and other ways to access new markets. There is no real competitiveness. For example, Facebook tried to buy Snapchat, which declined the offer. What was the solution? Mark Zuckerberg directly copied all the functionalities. Apparently, it seems that there are different companies, but, precisely, they use this to continue giving them more and more power.
And how can politics respond so that they do not dominate the market?
In France and the United States, as the Democratic candidate Elisabeth Warren has commented, they are betting on continuing to increase the competition between companies. Warren has even proposed splitting these companies, like forcing Facebook to sell Instagram. A more modern version is that of countries like Germany and the United Kingdom, where they appeal to large technology companies to share part of their data with other organizations. If all this information allows you to give some services and have an advantage over the rest, in the end consolidate your position. If these data were shared, then the others would be true competitors.
But you assured that greater competitiveness was not the solution.
For me, it's a very limited perspective. Many of the problems we have with the great technology are based on this supposed competition. Why does Facebook want more and more of our data? Because it competes with Google for the money that comes from the ads. The more data you have, the better ads you will make and the more money you will get. What exists is a competition for information, attention and money between all these platforms. I do not think that increasing competition is the solution. It will create more problems. Imagine a scenario with multiple googles. The original has shown that it is able to reasonably maintain the security of the information. Yes 50 startups they enter the game, without such a good structure, what would happen?
What is the optimal solution for which you advocate?
In the end, they are companies such as managers and distributors of water and electricity, although in their case of technology. In as much and how much Amazon became the electronic commerce where to buy and to sell everything or Google in the basic form to enter Internet and Facebook in the simplest mechanism to communicate with the rest of the society, are arguments enough to consider them services public. Either we regulate them a lot or we turn them into elements of public ownership. They are natural monopolies that depend on the governments.
Is it possible to break this dependency?
Donald Trump despises Jeff Bezos because he is richer than he is. Despite this relationship, the president of the United States spends 10 billion dollars a year working with Amazon. The CIA uses its cloud. The American Government depends on the Amazon service. And this can only get worse with artificial intelligence. The only ones that can really scale it up are Google, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft. This generates even more dependence if possible. I think it's a powerful argument to have these companies under public control, as long as you can not exercise any kind of public ownership. You have to regulate them beyond the private company. They are public goods.
Should States offer cloud computing or machine learning as a commodity?
Without a doubt. We could even count on a publicly owned cloud. This is the case of the European Union, which has created the Open Science Cloud for researchers and scientists. It is easy enough to imagine that it can be extended to other technological elements. As with water and electricity, why can not technology become a public good?