David Heinemeier Hansson

March 15, 2024

Beware the leviathans

I've been pleading with antitrust authorities around the world to do something about Big Tech for years now. Especially with those awful app store monopolies that have been choking out developers left, right, and center. But now that something finally looks to be happening, I'm suddenly concerned that it might, and that we'll end up wishing that it didn't.

It's not because I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for Apple's or Google's right to milk their mobile tollbooths for billions more. Au contraire. My concern is rather that the sovereign leviathans of the world, be it the EU or the US, might not exactly share as many interests with free market advocates as it appears on the surface.

Let's start with the Digital Markets Act. That's the main antitrust battering ram hitting the gates of Apple's keep at the moment. And Apple doesn't seem to know what's up, down, or any which way around. They're stumbling from one defiant defeat to the next humiliating flip-flop on policy. It's hard not to be filled with schadenfreude in response.

Apple is finally getting a dose of its own infuriating medicine! It's fumbling in the dark trying to comply with vague, ambiguous rules that seem designed for maximum frustration. And it can't seem to get a straight answer from said authorities on exactly what it'll take to be legal. It has to invent a myriad of APIs and policies up front, only then to be told what will be accepted (or not) after the fact.

Welcome to our world, Apple. This is exactly what it feels like to be a developer knocking on the door of your app store bureaucracy. Being bandied about from reviewer to reviewer, never certain what it takes to make you happy. Constantly wishing that the next update will just make your bureaucrats go away and leave us alone.

But once I've let the dark delight subside, I must return to my principles. The reason developers are so frustrated with the app store monopolies is exactly the absence of clear rules that are consistently and predictably enforced. We want a rule of law where it's obvious what's kosher and what's not. Where everyone is treated the same, regardless of industry, power, or privilege. A lady justice blind to her subjects.

In the best case scenario, this awful DMA adventure that Apple is currently struggling through will be a mirror for the company to reflect on its own behavior. And, having felt exactly that sense of intolerable frustration shared by countless developers, they'll use the introspection to reconsider their extractive ways.

Yes, that's very much wishful thinking. But I refuse to stop hoping, because if you give up on hope, you're bound to become cynical, and that's a curse worse than any commercial dispossession.

But let's return to the biggest potential threat here. Not from Apple, not from Google, but from the sovereign leviathans. The legislatures, the courts, and the rest of the governmental machinery slowly churning their big grinding gears in the US and the EU.

The DMA is convoluted and complicated because the EU is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It purports to open markets and ensure competition, but at the same time embrace the power of consolidation by co-opting Apple's (and Google's) reach and gatekeeper privileges. This latter motive is what governments on both sides of the Atlantic have been pursuing for the internet since day one. To bring it under their control.

You see this with the scarily authoritarian laws targeting "misinformation" and other forms of speech that are spreading in both the new world and the old. You see it in the countless of examples of overt collaboration between the key platforms and government censors. The Twitter Files gave us a depressing look into how officials were circumventing the first amendment in the US, and most of the rest of the world doesn't even have a right to free speech enshrined in their constitution. So laws that seek increasingly draconian penalties for forbidden speech are coming out of the woodwork everywhere.

And here's the kicker. These laws need implementation, and no process has proven more effective than deputizing the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon, and other Big Tech platform owners. Making them responsible for carrying out the censorship. Whether that takes the explicit form of official laws and their invocation, like the dystopian financial crackdown on the Canadian trucker protests and their donors, or the threats from officials that pushed Parlor off the internet.

Now I know that as soon as we dive into the specifics, like the Canadian trucker protests or Parlor or anything else from those divisive archives, this whole debate turns into a partisan team sport. Whatever lofty principles people hold in the abstract are quickly sacrificed, if there's a chance to score a win against the opposing side. This is when labels fly freely, and suddenly everyone is a nazi or a communist.

But whatever side you're on (or whether you take a side at all!), you ought to recognize that the rings of power usually change side every now and then. Every overreach you find justified when its your team wielding the advantage is one you'll rue when it's turned back against you.

I think even the most hardcore partisans actually know this, even if they're loathe to admit it. It's why you have a parade of Democrats in the US chasing Trump with every bogus legal claim under the sun while fretting that he'll "weaponize the courts to pursue his political enemies", if he wins this November. Pots and kettles, all black.

(Yes, again, I recognize that mentioning Trump will completely shut off the frontal lobes of half the audience, if references to Canadian truckers or Parlor didn't do the job already. But the hypocrisy is just too grand to ignore. Regardless of whether you think Trump is a once-in-a-century villain or not.)

All this is why reasonable people might well just have second thoughts about whether the US government should ban TikTok. I think there are plenty of valid reasons, most persuasively those on reciprocal trade, but let's not pretend the slippery slope hasn't been proven right repeatedly in the last few years.

Emergency powers invoked when honking horns got too much. Misinformation missions expanding to include malinformation too (true information that's unhelpful/damaging to the cause/narrative). Political opponents labeled as traitors and in cahoots with foreign adversaries.

I think it's perfectly reasonable to worry how a ban/forced sale of TikTok might pave the way for similar actions against X or Rumble or whoever fails to kick off people saying the wrong words.

That's the context in which I worry about what comes next in the fight against Big Tech monopolies. A future where this intolerable concentration of power is not so much disbanded as simply subsumed into the growing arsenal of oppressive powers that are increasingly being collected by Western democracies. All in the name of fighting the ever-expanding list of forbidden words and topics, amongst other boogeymen.

I want to see the monopolies of Apple and Google addressed. And I also think the leviathans are our best bet in the short term, but I'm open to the idea that the short term isn't worth selling out our principles for in the long term. That maybe we ought to place our faith in iterative game theory, and the fact that critical platforms do change, albeit rarely and slowly.

There's one version of history that holds that it was the Justice Departments case against Microsoft that opened up the tech world to new entrants in the early 2000s. That without their intervention, we'd been doomed to live with the awfulness of IE forever, and Windows would have reigned supreme until the end of our days.

But there's another version that sees the inherently disruptive force of the internet, the rise of Firefox, then Chrome, together with Google, Facebook, and the rest of that eras challenges to Microsoft, as happening without the intervention of the leviathan. And that those same forces, and the nature of playing successive rounds of the prisoner's dilemma, is what lead Microsoft to lose the ultimate prize on the next decades: mobile.

Usually, I find it relatively easy to navigate such questions and counterfactuals to arrive at a position worth going all-in on. But not this time. This time I'll admit to be equally concerned with whether the EU, to take the DMA specifically, is successful or not.

In the end, we might all come to echo Kierkegaard's immortal sense of regret: Tackle Big Tech, and you will regret it. Don't tackle Big Tech, and you will regret that too. Either way, you will regret it.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.