Watomatic, for lower Whatsapp switching costs
Any discussion of monopolization of the web is bound to include the term “network effects,” and its constant companion, “natural monopolies.” This econojargon is certainly relevant to the discussion, but really needs the oft-MIA idea of “switching costs.”
A technology has “network effects” when its value grows as its users increase, attracting more users, making it more valuable, attracting more users.
The classic example is the fax machine: one fax is useless, two is better, but when everyone has a fax, you need one too.
Social media and messaging obviously benefit significantly from network effects: if all your friends are on Facebook (or if it’s where your kid’s Little League games are organized, or how your work colleagues plan fun activities), you’ll feel enormous pressure to join.
Indeed, in these days of Facebook’s cratering reputation, it’s common to hear people say, “I’m only on FB because my friends are there,” and then your friends say, “I’m only there because you are there.”
It’s a form of mutual hostage-taking.
That hostage situation illustrates (yet) another economic idea: “collective action problems.” There are lots of alternatives to Facebook, but unless you can convince everyone on Facebook to pick one and move en masse, you’ll just end up with yet another social account.
This combination of network effects and collective action problems leads some apologists for tech concentration to call the whole thing a “natural monopoly” — a system that tends to be dominated by a single company, no matter how hard we try.
Railroads are canonical “natural monopolies.” Between the costs of labor and capital and the difficulty in securing pencil-straight rights-of-way across long distances, it’s hard to make the case for running a second set of parallel tracks for a competing company’s engines.
Other examples of natural monopolies include cable and telephone systems, water and gas systems, sewer systems, public roads, and electric grids.
Not coincidentally, these are often operated as public utilities, to keep natural monopolies from being abused by greedy jerks.
But the internet isn’t a railroad. Digital is different, because computers are universal in a way that railroads aren’t — all computers can run all programs that can be expressed in symbolic logic, and that means we can almost always connect new systems to existing ones.
Open up a doc in your favorite word processor and choose “Save As…” and just stare in awe and wonder at all the different file-formats you can read and write with a single program. Some of those formats are standardized, while others are proprietary and/or obsolete.
It’s easier to implement support for a standard, documented format, but even proprietary formats pose only a small challenge relative to the challenge presented by, say, railroads.
Throw some reverse-engineering and experimentation at a format like MS DOC and you can make Apple Pages, which reads and writes MS’s formats (which were standardized shortly after Pages’ release, that is, after the proprietary advantage of the format was annihilated).
This is not to dismiss the ingenuity of the Apple engineers who reversed Microsoft’s hairball of a file-format, but rather, to stress how much harder their lives would have been if they were dealing with railroads instead of word-processors.
During Australia’s colonization, every state had its own governance and its own would-be rail-barons. Each state laid its own gauge of rail-track, producing the “multi-gauge muddle” — which is why, 150+ years later, you can’t get a train from one end of Oz to the other.
Hundreds of designs for interoperable rolling stock have been tried, but it’s proven impossible to make a reliable car that retracts one set of wheels and drops a different one.
The solution to the middle-gauge muddle? Tear up and re-lay thousands of kilometers of track.
Contrast that with the Windows users who discovered that Pages would read and write the thousands of documents they’d authored and had to exchange with colleagues: if they heeded the advice of the Apple Switch ads, they could buy a Mac, move their files over, and voila!
Which brings me to switching costs. The thing that make natural monopolies out of digital goods and services are high switching costs, including the collective action problem of convincing everyone to quit Facebook or start using a different word-processor.
These switching costs aren’t naturally occurring: they are deliberately introduced by dominant firms that want to keep their users locked in.
Microsoft used file format obfuscation and dirty tricks (like making a shoddy Mac Office suite that only offered partial compatibility with Windows Word files) to keep the switching costs high.
By reverse-engineering and reimplementing Word support, Apple obliterated those switching costs — and with them, the collective action problem that created Word’s natural monopoly.
Once Pages was a thing, you didn’t have to convince your friends to switch to a Mac at the same time as you in order to continue collaborating with them.
Once you get an email-to-fax program, you can discard your fax machine without convincing everyone else to do the same.
Interoperability generally lowers switching costs. But adversarial interoperability — making something new that connects to something that already exists, without its manufacturer’s consent — specifically lowers deliberate switching costs.
Adversarial interoperability (or “competitive compatibility,” AKA “comcom”) is part of the origin story of every dominant tech company today. But those same companies have gone to extraordinary lengths to extinguish it.
Just as a new company may endorse standardization when it’s trying to attract customers who would otherwise be locked into a “ecosystem” of apps, service, protocols and parts, so too do new companies endorse reverse-engineering and comcom to “fix” proprietary tech.
But every pirate wants to be an admiral. Once companies attain dominance, they start adding proprietary extensions to the standard and fighting comcom-based interoperability, decrying it as “hacking” or “theft of intellectual property.”
In the decades since Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook were upstarts, luring users away from the giants of their days, these same companies have labored to stretch copyright law, terms of service, trade secrecy, patents and other rules to ban the tactics they once used.
This has all but extinguished comcom as a commercial practice. Today’s comcom practitioners risk civil and criminal liability and struggle to get a sympathetic hearing from lawmakers or the press, who have generally forgotten that comcom was once a completely normal tactic.
The obliteration of comcom is why network effects produce such sturdy monopolies in tech — and there’s nothing “natural” about those monopolies.
If you could leave Facebook but still exchange messages with your friends who hadn’t wised up, there’d be no reason to stay.
In other words, the collective action problem that the prisoners of tech monopolies struggle with is the result of a deliberate strategy of imposing high technical and legal burdens to comcom, in order to impose insurmountable switching costs.
I wrote about this for Wired UK back in April, comparing the “switching costs” the USSR imposed on my grandmother when she fled to Canada in the 1940s to the low switching costs I endured when I emigrated from Canada to the UK to the USA:
Today, there’s a group of tech monopoly hostages who are stuck behind their own digital iron curtain, thanks to Facebook’s deliberate lock-in tactics: the users of Whatsapp, a messaging company that FB bought in 2014.
Whatsapp was a startup success: founded by privacy-focused technologists who sensed users were growing weary of commercial surveillance, they pitched their $1 service as an alternative to Facebook and other companies whose “free” products extracted a high privacy price.
Facebook bought Whatsapp, stopped the $1 charge, and started spying. In response to public outcry, the Facebook product managers responsible for the app assured its users that the surveillance data WA extracted wouldn’t be blended with Facebook’s vast database of kompromat.
That ended this year, when every Whatsapp user in the world got a message warning them that Facebook had unilaterally changed Whatsapp’s terms of service and would henceforth use the app’s surveillance data alongside the data it acquired on billions of people by other means.
Downloads of Whatsapp alternatives like Signal and Telegram surged, and Facebook announced it would hold off on implementing the change for three months. Three months later, on May 15, Facebook implemented the change and commenced with the promised, more aggressive spying.
Why not? After all, despite all of the downloads of those rival apps, Whatsapp usage did not appreciably fall. Convincing all your friends to quit Whatsapp and switch to Signal is a lot of work.
If the holdout is — say — a beloved elder whom you haven’t seen in a year due to lockdown, then the temptation to keep Whatsapp installed is hard to resist.
What if there was a way to lower those collective action costs?
It turns out there is. Watomatic is a free/open source “autoresponder” utility for Whatsapp and Facebook that automatically replies to messages with instructions for reaching you on a rival service.
It’s not full interoperability — not a way to stay connected to those friends who won’t or can’t leave Facebook’s services behind — but it’s still a huge improvement on the nagging feeling that people you love are wondering why you aren’t replying to their messages.
The project’s sourcecode is live on Github, so you can satisfy yourself that there isn’t any sneaky spying going on here:
It’s part of a wider constellation of Whatsapp mods, which have their origins in a Syrian reverse-engineer whose Whatsapp comcom project was picked up and extended by African modders who produced a constellation of Whatsapp-compatible apps.
These apps are often targeted for legal retaliation by Facebook, so it’s hard to find them in official app stores where they might be vetted for malicious code.
It’s a strategy that imposes a new switching cost on Whatsapp’s hostages, in the form of malware risk.
Legal threats are Facebook’s default response to comcom. That’s how they responded to NYU’s Ad Observer, a plugin that lets users scrape and repost the political ads they’re served.
Ad Observer lets independent researchers and journalists track whether Facebook is living up to its promises to block paid political disinformation. Facebook has made dire legal threats to shut this down, arguing that we should trust the company to mark its own homework.
Whatsapp lured users in by promising privacy. It held onto them post-acquisition by promising them their data would be siloed from Facebook’s main databases.
When it reneged on both promises, it papered this over by with a dialog box where they had to click I AGREE.
This “agreement” is a prime example of “consent theater,” the laughable pretense that Facebook is “making an offer” and the public is “accepting the offer.”
Most people never read terms of service — but even when they do, “agreements” are subject to unilateral “renegotiation” by companies that engineered high switching costs as a means of corralling you into clicking “I agree” to things no rational person would ever agree to.
Consent theater lays bare the fiction of agreement. Real agreement is based on negotiation, and markets are based on price-signals in which buyers and sellers make counteroffers.
A “market” isn’t a place where a dominant seller names a price and then takes it from you.
Comcom is a mechanism for making these counteroffers. Take ad-blockers, which Doc Searls calls “the largest consumer boycott in history.” More than a quarter of internet users have installed an ad-block, fed up with commercial surveillance.
This is negotiation, a counteroffer. Big Tech — and the publications it colonizes — demand you give them everything, all the data they can extract, for every purpose they can imagine, forever, as a condition of access.
Ad-block lets you say “Nah.”
The fiction that tech barons have “discovered” the “price” that the public is willing to pay for having a digital life is a parody of market doctrine. Without the ability to counteroffer — in code, as well as in law — there is no price discovery.
Rather, there is price-setting.
Not coincidentally, “the ability to set prices” is the textbook definition of an illegal monopoly.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.