Twitter's founding engineer has a compelling theory about how regulation could turn Facebook into the new AT&T

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Twitter's founding engineer has a compelling theory about how regulation could turn Facebook into the new AT&T

Zuckerberg Facebook Privacy Hearing Congress REUTERS

REUTERS/Leah Millis

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company's use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018.

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  • Twitter's founding engineer, Blaine Cook, thinks regulating big tech companies might end up cementing their power and stifling competition.
  • He used an example from Twitter's early days, when regulation targeting AT&T meant Twitter was in contravention of SEC rules.
  • He thinks lawmakers are too focused on regulating issues around data and privacy and not Facebook's most valuable asset - its network.
  • He thinks it's a 'failure' that there is no viable alternative to Facebook.


Regulating big tech companies like Facebook and Google might just make them stronger, according to Twitter's first chief architect, Blaine Cook.

In an interview with Business Insider, Cook outlined his theory of how regulation targeted at specific companies might stymie future innovation.

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"There are lots of people calling for regulation as a solution to all of [tech's] problems, and I really worry about that being the approach we take," he said.

"Regulation will be written by whoever is currently in government, with the companies in mind that have dominance at the moment. So that regulation might constrain what they can do in terms of tightening down their service, but it will also protect them from competitors."

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Cook was involved in building the first iteration of Twitter alongside founder Jack Dorsey. He left in 2008 and went on to work at Yahoo and BT, then founded and sold Poetica, a real-time content editing system, to Condé Nast. Now living in the UK, and more than a decade out of Twitter, he sees it as a failing that no one has really managed to build an alternative to Facebook.

Twitter lead architect and Poetica founder Blaine Cook

Blaine Cook

Blaine Cook, founder of Poetic and formerly one of Twitter's founding team.

"The fact there aren't more networks I see as one of the big failings of my work on Twitter," he said.

"Our generation of technologists, I'm not sure we can take personal responsibility, but we didn't build those alternatives from the start. I would just like to see that promise fulfilled that is fundamental to civil society .... to rely on being able to organise ourselves in free and open ways. I think the internet has strayed from that original promise."

Twitter was held back by US laws originally intended for AT&T

Cook has an anecdote from the early days of Twitter to show how laws targeted at a monopoly can stifle smaller startups. It dates from his time at podcasting startup Odeo, which eventually morphed into Twitter. Cook went on to become its first lead engineer, and was an integral part of its founding story.

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When Twitter first started, users had to send an SMS message to a mobile number in order to post a tweet.

"When we started Twitter, the first version of Twitter was in contravention of [US] SEC regulation," Cook told Business Insider. "We had a laptop with a modem attached to it. Literally, a cellphone would send updates via that modem. Under SEC regulations, you can't send automated texts without a licence. We did not have a licence, and we were sending automated texts. To get started, we spent a huge amount of time and effort setting up a shortcode in the US, and getting SEC permission."

twitter sxsw 2007 jack dorsey evan williams biz stone jason

Flickr via Scott Beale/LaughingSquid

Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Ev Williams publicising Twitter at SXSW in 2007.

Those rules, he said, stemmed from the breakup of US telecommunications giant AT&T in the 1980s. He likened AT&T's monopoly to British telecoms provider BT in the UK which, until recently, offered broadband services but also ran the UK's entire broadband network through its Openreach arm.

Even after government-mandated breakups, AT&T and BT remain dominant in the US and UK respectively.

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"I guess I'm worried about a future where Facebook becomes BT and AT&T, and you stop being able to create new alternatives," Cook said. "Everything is done within the rubric of Facebook."

Lawmakers are focused on regulating for privacy, when they should focus on Facebook's network

If governments must regulate Facebook, then they should at least regulate the part of Facebook that's actually valuable - its network, according to Cook.

"The connective fabric is the place where we see the value," he said. "We see that in the Cambridge Analytica leaks, where it's actually your friends' network being exploited, not your personal data."

zuckerberg

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg extolling the company's network.

Cook cited Metcalfe's Law which, in Facebook's case, essentially means the more users it has, the more valuable it is.

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If they must regulate, lawmakers should focus on the fact Facebook's value lies in this structural network effect, and not personal data, he said. If anything, recent history shows that consumers are willing to share their personal data and forego their privacy. That means users will probably try and circumvent stricter privacy protections, negating the intended impact of regulation like the GDPR. And again, the big loser will be smaller companies.

Better, he said, to try and regulate that network effect. And even that's going to be hard. "The question is how do we, from a legal perspective, break up Facebook in a way that BT was broken up?" he said. "Within the national context, BT still defines how phone networks work even after the breakup."

The answer might be to export Facebook's network value outside of Facebook

When Business Insider asked what the solution is, Cook cited email as a good template for a decentralised social network

It is hard to muster much enthusiasm for email as a replacement for social media but, Cook said, it's a technology where people are free to set up their own email server, or pick between something like Hotmail or Gmail.

"The only challenge is that email is person-to-person, and we need to work on building more collective networks. So if you can imagine email, but for a community," he said.

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Cook points to decentralised social network Mastodon as an example. Unlike Facebook, or Twitter, there's no single website for Mastodon - instead, you pick an independent node to join. You could join multiple nodes, each with its own separate set of rules. And you can communicate between those different nodes - a little like email. You can read a good explainer on Mastodon from The Verge here.

"If Facebook turned on Mastodon support tomorrow, or was forced to, that would be huge," said Cook. "Everyone could communicate with Facebook but wouldn't have to store data on Facebook's servers. That would fundamentally change the relationship."

Facebook is the wedding from hell

Were people not locked into Facebook, Cook believes people would splinter off into smaller networks.

"It's inevitable," he said. "I've described Facebook as the wedding from hell. It's everyone you ever met standing around at your wedding - your mom talking to your boss, and the first person you dated in high school. And you're like, 'This is terrible.' There's a reason they structured it that way ... they could grow the social graph bigger. That's all that mattered for them."

facebook open graph

Facebook's Open Graph, a root cause of its Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

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For Facebook's users though, this "makes no sense" - because it's much more human and normal to present different versions of yourself to different people, he said. "I expect to see Facebook become unfashionable."

The issue is, of course, that currently most people are on Facebook and are unlikely to quit unless their friends do. "That's where, for me, the abuse of monopoly [power] comes in on Facebook. They have made it difficult for people to use other networks in all sorts of ways," said Cook.

And even Cook isn't going to delete his account anytime soon.

"It's more tempting. And maybe I should clarify that WhatsApp and Instagram are both Facebook, and I wouldn't shut those down. The sort of social [interactions] we see on Facebook are very shallow... I think there's an element that Facebook is more like the tabloids. And while I wouldn't ban The Sun or The Daily Mail, I'd be more tempted to."

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