S.2992 is being promoted as protecting users and small businesses from giant corporations, but in the Senate’s rush to dismember big tech they’ve traded away the livelihoods of millions of US developers and millions more that export to the US. The bill’s prohibitions target the key areas that platform companies use to manage the ecosystems they’ve built. On the surface, some of these rules seem attractive, but all the prohibited behaviors also serve a purpose in supporting the app economy. The bill’s major elements, while possibly well-intentioned, work together to dismantle the app ecosystems that developers rely on to build products and get them to market. At best they throw the app industry into chaos. At worst, they eliminate the market for 3rd party apps by forcing platform companies to close their ecosystems completely and become walled gardens.
The Bill says platforms cannot “self-preference” their own products, services, or lines of business, and must invite competitors into each of the ecosystem elements. The result will be that platform-created APIs and tools that developers rely on will no longer be available, to be replaced by competing 3rd party alternatives. While the bill implies a thriving market of replacements, there will be no mechanism to ensure quality, consistency, or in fact that any API or service will actually be loaded on a particular target device, since there will no longer be a platform or platform owner. Ecosystems will fragment and users will lose the stewardship of trusted brands while the marketplace scrambles to re-assemble in some pseudo-stable form. The bill doesn’t just open platforms to competition, it actively dismantles what’s in place, removes the system of cross-subsidies that enable the component parts, prohibits new ecosystems from forming, and then leaves no one in charge of the chaos that’s left behind. The implication that platform owners will freely offer existing services to their competitors and customers without limits and without the ability to profit from them is clearly unrealistic.
The Bill also says platforms must provide interoperability and access to all their products and services (OS, store, devices, APIs, sensors, etc.) to anyone that wants them. For developers, this means full access to new features, full-service visibility, and no restrictions or controls over who can access platform components or what they can do with them. This also means that devices become general-purpose computers, have no enforceable terms of service, and have no incentives for investment in OS or device features that ultimately benefit the competition. Again, why would anyone invest in IPR if whatever you produce accrues to your competitors for free, and the ability to create supporting services is banned? Won’t platform companies simply stop being platforms, close their doors to 3rd parties and build everything in-house to remain viable?
While less relevant to developers, the bill’s prohibition of competitive practices in digital markets which are common in brick-and-mortar markets points to Senators’ sensitivity to their legacy supporters. The bill prohibits using in-house information about business users to their disadvantage or in competition with them. While supermarkets and big-box stores would continue to substitute in-house brands for successful 3rd party products (at a higher mark-up than app stores), the same practice would not be allowed by today’s platforms that compete with them.
The Bill also prohibits platforms from restricting developer access to user data and forces them to make data freely portable. Developers have seen the benefits of platform programs that promote app data hygiene and end-user trust. With devices and services forced to openly share and standardize data, and international data laws fully in play, developers will need to take on the task of compliance they previously left to the platforms. Without the resources of platform legal departments, developer companies will need to establish or contract for all the processes and procedures to avoid being sued, or they will need to avoid collecting and using data completely. Removing the ability for platforms to use data for advertising or other services will challenge the free internet consumer model for any service that isn’t already established and trusted.
Finally, the Bill says platforms cannot restrict end users from installing, uninstalling, or changing default settings and services. Coupled with the loss of ecosystem stewardship, the result will be that every device will quickly have a unique configuration of apps, defaults, services, and patches as users take on their own system administration. Today’s popular apps will likely survive as new apps become undiscoverable, but with APIs appearing and disappearing on the device, apps will need to be reworked for cloud and web services, and offline apps may fail.
In summary, the Senate bill Bill dismantles the ecosystems developers rely on for their success, and offers nothing in their place. It forces platform companies to either offer their existing services for free to anyone that asks or to bring all their products and services in-house. It doesn’t stop them from being gatekeepers; it forces them to lock their gates and turn their partners into suppliers. It changes them from marketplaces to retailers; buying and warehousing digital products for later sale to consumers, breaking the connection between developers and users. It breaks the platform business model and puts nothing in its place.
Ask your Senator to stop this bill from becoming law.