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We shouldn't ban or break up tech companies. We should make their problematic business models unviable.

I was listening recently to a discussion about the US government’s plans to regulate, break up, or outright ban TikTok. I don’t think TikTok is great, but it feels like the current focus on TikTok to the exclusion of all the rest of the social media platforms is wrapped up in hysteria and xenophobia.

Generally, I tend to think that attempts to ban or break up any of these platforms are misguided. The core problem is the business model that drives the digital economy: the offering of free services that will entrap users into turning over their personal data, which can then be aggregated and sold. As long as that business model remains viable, it won’t matter how many of these companies we ban or break up. More will crop up, and the problem will persist.

The way to really go after these platforms is to make their business model unviable, and the way to do that is by enacting meaningful data privacy laws and regulations. Make it impossible or financially onerous and burdensome to collect, aggregate, and sell user data at a large scale, and no company is going to want to be in that business anymore.

The problem that sticks in my mind about that approach, however, is how enforcement would work. When there is a question about whether or not a restaurant is complying with food safety regulations, the local health inspector can walk in and see whether the kitchen staff is wearing gloves and if the chicken is sitting unwrapped overnight on the rack in the fridge. If there is a question of building code violations, the building inspector can do the same.

With large tech platforms, it is much more of a black-box situation. The analog to the health inspector walking into the kitchen and opening the refrigerators seems like it would be to have the government be able to access the datacenters and the servers and look at all the data on them. Given the US government’s track record, that seems potentially problematic on a number of different levels. Still, it seems like a potentially solvable problem.

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