One of the most fearsome anti-trusters was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican president who jousted with the oil companies.
We know who today’s oil companies are. Big Tech in so many cases. And Google has just reminded us with its appalling ban on Android reading apps that don’t use Google’s payment system. Goodbye to full-function Kindle apps for Android cell phones. The Google tax would be too onerous. Remember, Amazon and the like must shell out money to publishers, which come with their own price requirements.
As an ebook reader, writer or publisher, what targets would be on your anti-trust list if you ruled the world or at least the Federal Trade Commission and equivalents in the EU and elsewhere?
Here are a few possibilities that come to my mind beyond preventing Google and Apple from banning the payment-enabled Kindle app and similar ones.
1. The feds should outlaw tech companies’ bans on apps for other commercial reasons. I could not find OverDrive’s popular Libby library app when I searched just now in the Amazon store. Workarounds do exist, such as getting the Google Play Store going on your Fire, but the average consumer will not want to mess with them. You can send books from Libby to your Fire. But that’s not the same as an all-in-one approach. In the past OverDrive told me Amazon was evaluating Libby. However, that was many many months ago. Still going on? Why? Now here’s another example. The Fire tablets won’t run Moon+ Reader Pro bought from the Amazon app store, or least mine wouldn’t when I tried in the past. Amazon perhaps fears it’s a better reader, for many consumers, than the Kindle app is. Moon+ Reader Pro offers far-superior control over the typography onscreen, and add-ons can provide text to speech with better voice options than the Fire offers. Alas, Moon won’t run DRMed files from Amazon or other vendors. But Point #4 addresses that issue.
2. Ebooks and related tech should be truly interoperable in bookstores above a certain size. That means the required use of ePub and open PDF as at least options for consumers. Stores could still use proprietary formats and keep them around for owners of older devices.
3. In a related vein: E Ink devices and other book-dedicated hardware should at least be able to read ePub, a well-established industry standard. Granted, Amazon says it will let consumers send in ePub for conversion to a Kindle format. Not good enough!
4. DRM if used should be nonproprietary, and ideally stores instead can be encouraged to use something more consumer-friendly like watermarking. Maybe regulators could restrict DRM in larger stores to a certain percentage of titles. I want to be able to use Moon+ Reader Pro on the usual bestsellers, which watermarking would allow.
5. Publishers and authors should have access to click-through information on first-chapter links on Amazon and other stores above a certain size. Perhaps the feds should require release of other marketing information as well. Consumers would benefit from books more responsive to their wants and needs.
6. Search engines in online bookstores should be required to pull up a book, audiobook or other item if the reader types out the main title. Yes, readers can theoretically enter other information like an author’s name. But in real life they don’t. This additional barrier can harm small publishers and self-publishers. I know about the problem first hand. Apple’s only excuse to me—for keeping my recent ebook from appearing in main title-based searches even when the audiobook did—was that this was “standard practice.” I’m 1,000 percent of favor of more transparency of algorithms that the big stores use.
No, my list is not complete, but it’s a start. Just remember one of the traditional criteria for anti-trust cases—harm to consumers. The ebook business abounds with it. Same for harm to authors, small business people.
Let me say I believe in flexibility. I’m all in favor of giving tech companies and others a break if they can prove that certain practices actually benefit consumers through scale of services or otherwise. I’d agree with Roosevelt that a role exists for big business. The problem is that the regulators in practice have often been far too accommodating.
I can pass on some good news. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department have been taking a new interest in the woes of people “who have experienced firsthand the effects of mergers and acquisitions.” The investigators want to go “beyond antitrust experts, including consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, start-ups, farmers, investors, and independent businesses.” See Cory Doctor’s commentary in Medium.
Furthermore, the EU has been toughening its stand against tech monopolies’ abuses (here and here).
Now—your own thoughts? What anti-trust targets should be in the crosshairs?
Yes, I know it’s an election year in the United States. But methinks that most voters would welcome well-crafted anti-trust legislation and enforcement. Again, the idea isn’t to harass big business for the sheer joy of it, but instead come up with thoughtful full-strength consumer protection in situations begging for this. Time for Washington to take on Big Tech in a fair-minded, nonpartisan way.
Note: Yes, libraries are suffering in another way, through all the mergers that have taken place. Big publishers are charging libraries too much for ebooks or, in some cases, not making them available to libraries at all.
Meh, that’s like asking which way to point your umbrella in a hurricane.
Seriously, look at the situation: right now Google owns the most popular operating system (Android devices far outnumber PCs of any type) and the most popular browser. Sounds familiar? And then they also own the most popular search engine… plus the most popular ad network. Oh, and the most popular e-mail service, too. If you wanted to split up Google, you’d end up with at least half a dozen companies… and every single one of them would still utterly dominate a sector of computing. That’s how big they are. Compared to this, the problem of e-books is almost microscopic (but see below).
That said, I’d start by forcing them to change the license on the Android SDK, so people can develop alternatives and start making apps without Google tracking them. Oh, and make sure they’re not allowed to disable sideloading on devices. Otherwise, I just heard from a creator on itch.io whose latest game is most often downloaded by Android users. People do know about other sources of apps, and don’t mind getting off the beaten path. If they can.
As for issues related to e-books proper… first you’d have to educate consumers, because in my experience most people have no clue what an ePub file is, and why they should care. How are they going to demand regulation?
Otherwise, the big e-book stores dominate the market much less than they want you to believe. I just heard from another writer who got a vast majority of preorders for their latest book from places other than Amazon. But maybe we could force the latter not to require price-matching for books also sold elsewhere, and generally to stop telling authors for how much to sell their books. Stuff like that.
Big thanks for the thoughtful comments, Felix. My replies to some of the points you made:
1. I agree that ebooks are minor in the grand scheme of things. But they’re very representative of the current anti-trust (non)enforcement mess.
2. Love your thoughts on the Android SDK and related matters.
4. Perhaps over in Romania and the rest of Europe, people have a different perspective, especially with ePub being far more of a standard there than the Kindle formats are. But with self-published writers in the states, Amazon remains the main show.
3. US consumers may or may not care about ePub in particular, but many do care about whether they can own books for real. The less proprietary the format, the more secure the ownership. Here’s to long-term interoperability! Needless to say, we need to educate the people who still don’t care.
4. Yes, price matching and the rest really do stink.
Nice hearing from you, Felix. I hope you’re doing well. Meanwhile, we’ll root for your Ukrainian neighbors.
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What is DRM?
Hi, Jan. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. It’s a form of anti-piracy technology. It does have some uses, but quite often, it inconveniences legitimate users more than it actually protects against piracy. You can find out more via Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management