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How little tech is turning the tide in the fight against big tech

Smaller companies like DuckDuckGo and Mozilla are now winning fights against Google and Amazon.


Robert Locklear


Posted on Feb 2, 2022   Updated on Feb 7, 2022, 1:25 pm CST

Have you ever tried to change the browser on your phone from its default app and been stymied by the difficulty? Did you even know it was possible to jump off Safari on your iPhone and use Opera?

Nearly every single interaction Americans have with their computer, tablet, or smartphone is mediated in some way through the lens of big tech, which preloads apps, shuffles competitors down search results, and makes it as miserable as possible to interface with technologies that are not their own. But the days of Apple, Google, and Amazon’s big tech’s monopoly over your personal devices may soon be over.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee debated a new bill that would restrict big tech companies like Amazon and Google from favoring their own services over others. The legislation passed committee with bipartisan support, backed by smaller companies who want competition on the internet to begin to be an open playing field again

Smaller companies and antitrust regulators are fed up with big tech crushing competition through its gatekeeping monopolies and have been pushing for the passage of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which will put new restrictions on big tech. While the vote out of committee is a huge step, the legislation still needs to pass all the way through Congress. The White House has not explicitly supported the AICOA yet.

The Jan. 20 session followed weeks of lobbying from big tech, who spent tens of millions of dollars in ads defending themselves just last year, according to the Washington Post. Many of those ads defended big tech’s current hold on technology, hyperbolically claiming that new antitrust laws could keep Americans from accessing help in emergencies, or saying antitrust laws could ruin the internet.

Despite the blizzard of ads, the government didn’t buckle before voting. And with smaller tech companies coalescing around a slate of bills in Congress, big tech’s iron grip on technology may soon be loosened.

Just before the Senate Judiciary Committee session, forty-four smaller companies rallied together, signing an open letter published on Jan. 18 in support of the AICOA. Many of the companies have been involved in lawsuits or conflicts with big tech in which the companies lost business due to the currently monopolistic nature of the internet.

“For too long, dominant technology companies have made it difficult for other businesses to compete in the digital marketplace by abusing their gatekeeper status to give themselves and their partners’ preferential treatment and access on their platforms,” reads the letter.

The companies signing the letter include some larger names like DuckDuckGo, Mozilla, and Sonos. All of them are aligned with the common goal of holding the largest tech companies accountable and ending the gatekeeping aspects of big tech. 

The “gatekeeper” term from the letter is fitting given that big tech places their own services front and center, making it easier for users to access them and more difficult for users to find others. Some apps made by big tech are downloaded by default on phones. Changing them out for other apps—whose developers often say are better or at least different—may be harder for the average user. That hits smaller tech companies with less exposure. 

“We think that dominant tech companies, by having that gatekeeper position and abusing that gatekeeper position, are preventing users from seeing that there are other great services out there that just don’t happen to be one of these five big tech companies,” Katie McInnis, DuckDuckGo’s senior public policy manager U.S., told the Daily Dot.

DuckDuckGo is an internet search engine founded in 2008. From the start, the company has prioritized user privacy as one of its most appealing features. As a competitor to Google, which includes a search engine, DuckDuckGo has hit on Google’s lack of privacy features in the past, an argument it says still rings true. 

DuckDuckGo supports the bill because today’s digital market presents challenges to protecting consumers. A lack of user privacy is one of the main criticisms facing big tech, and the AICOA targets one way in which big tech holds monopolies. Google specifically has impacted DuckDuckGo significantly, with a ten percent drop in new users due to a self-preferencing tactic Google implemented in 2020, according to McInnis. 

McInnis said this self-preferencing tactic is a deceptive dialog box popup that steers users away from other search extensions. And so Google, which gobbles up data, continues to do so, while services like DuckDuckGo that prioritize data privacy aren’t even given a chance to make their case to a user base.

“There are clear anti-competitive effects here, and we’re excited for the Senate and House to pass very straightforward rules of the road banning dominant tech providers from doing a lot of these self-preferencing tactics that hurt competition,” McInnis said.

In June 2021, Sonos legal chief Eddie Lazarus testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights—the same subcommittee which just passed the AICOA forward. 

Lazarus spoke out against the monopoly over smart homes that big tech holds. His testimony parallels the complaints the AICOA hopes to rectify, another example of tech giants imposing an unchecked monopoly over a market, one where the devices come preloaded with their own operating systems. The result is a continuously growing pool of smart homes with only apps and services run by Amazon and Google.

Prior to the Jan. 20 Senate Judiciary Committee session, Lazarus wrote a letter directed to the co-sponsors of the legislation: Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

“We predict the bill will not only enhance innovation through fair competition, it is also likely to produce more productive and creative collaborations between the biggest players and up-and-coming entrepreneurial companies,” Lazarus said.

The AICOA is designed to bring restrictions to big tech and give smaller companies a more competitive chance on the market. DuckDuckGo says they wouldn’t have lost their aforementioned 10% of new downloads if Google hadn’t implemented its self-preferencing tactic. If the market for smart home speakers wasn’t controlled by Amazon and Google, Sonos says it would have more of a chance to rise against the monopolies.

By joining in the group of small and medium companies to urge the passing of the new act, Sonos is part of an effort to bring the tech market back to fair competition. Out of the other companies listed in the open letter, Mozilla is one of the most vocal companies with its response to big tech. Mozilla has been closely tied with antitrust issues in the past.

Mozilla is a free open-source web browser founded in 1999. According to Jenn Taylor Hodges, Mozilla’s director of U.S. public policy, the company has been building the internet as a place for competition to grow and allow users to form their own online experience. Along with those pushing for the AICOA, Mozilla is concerned about the effects of the gatekeeping tech giants.

“As the internet becomes increasingly centralized, the opportunity for anticompetitive behavior rises. We are encouraged to see the efforts in Congress to address competition issues, and we support the work of lawmakers and regulators across the globe as they seek to modernize frameworks to meet today’s challenges,” Hodges told the Daily Dot.

Besides companies themselves standing up against tech giants, other groups are rising to push for the AICOA in addition to future antitrust legislation and regulations. 

The Tech Oversight Project is an initiative created to hold big tech accountable. Executive Director Sacha Haworth says part of the mission with the Tech Oversight Project will help target and debunk narratives peddled by big tech monopolies.

“They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past couple of years to lobby for the status quo so they don’t have to rein in their dominant behavior,” Haworth told the Daily Dot. “A number of these criticisms are just lies.” 

The Tech Oversight Project is also pushing for another bill called the Open App Markets Act which is scheduled for a committee markup this week. The bill would especially affect Apple and Google by changing how their app stores control app developers. And given the passage of the AOICA, momentum could be building for more legislation.

“A reason we know this was an important step in reining in big tech is because of the amount of opposition we saw from the big tech lobby,” Haworth said, adding: “We know that the reason why they are mobilizing so heavily is because this actually affects their bottom line and their behavior online.”

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*First Published: Feb 2, 2022, 9:35 am CST