Tackling the Monopoly Problem

There was a time when people who were exploring computational technology saw it as the path toward decentralization and freedom worldwide. What we have ended up with, instead, is a world that is increasingly centralized, subject to surveillance, and unfree. How did that come to be? In a keynote at the online 2021 linux.conf.au event, Cory Doctorow gave his view of this problem and named its source: monopoly.


HN discussion: news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2

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@dredmorbius he gets a lot of the history right, but all is not sweetness and light on the backside of monopolies being broken up. A small hotel operator in mississippi was suddenly able to buy under-market value long distance service that at&t was forced to sell by judge Greene and WorldCom was born sucking up and destroying many good companies (ANS, CompuServe, MCI, UUNET) on its way to a fraudulent dot-bomb ending.

With or without monopoly busting human nature is still with us.

@eludom Some truth, and there are plenty of petty tyrants as well.

  • I'd rather a petty tyrant than a colossus.
  • Worldcom itself became a monopoly, which is just a repeat of the original AT&T problem.

I'm also of the mind that there may be some legitimate benefits to monopoly, though these are probably special cases and call for extraordinarily restricted instances. The centralised decisionmaking and agreement-creation of monopolies are useful in establishing standards or (in at least some cases) acting more quickly than a market or consortium might, if it can in fact be spurred to act. (Monopolies often do act quite rapidly ... in response to threats to their own monopoly status.)

But there's a hell of a lot of harm as well.

@dredmorbius and say what you want about AT&T but at a certain level that was a company that knew how to engineer things. You could throw one of those old black phones down the stairs onto a cement floor and it would come away unscratched.

@eludom But that was in their own interests:

  • The Phone System extended from handset to handset and included all points between. Nothing could be attached to it without permission.
  • This extended to third-party answering machines (nope!), call redirectors (nope!), and IIRC even covers for phone directories and shoulder-rests or headphones for handsets.
  • Telephone equipment wan't sold but leased, and repair or replacement costs a liability to the phone monopoly. Western Electric design and fabrication was remarkably robust, yes. From monopolistic self-interest.

AT&T were also actively involved in thwarting packet-based switching technologies.

@dredmorbius I was there for a lot of it. The circuit switching vs packet switching wars. ATM. Fully aware of the restrictions on hooking up equipment, but by 79 at least we were using modems in my HS to dial in to Ohio State's DEC20, and about that time CompuServe (my first employer 6 years later) was pivoting from business timesharing to consumer online. At least by then modems were possible and becoming common.

@eludom True, but that was a long time coming.

I'm trying to find the case history and law, but there were some interesting episodes. Such as the engineer basically driven to the Mob by AT&T's refusal to allow third-party equipment hookups, and succeeding in a hard-time felony conviction against him for doing that.

Walter L. Shaw, inventor of the Blue Box:


@dredmorbius what do think would happen today if two kids invented a device to steal service from one of the largest companies in the world (Apple) and started selling it?

Looks like the 60s generation grew up and became their parents. "And the beat goes on..."



Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

-- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 5 Chapter 1 part 2


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