Human Voices, Episode 1: The Impact of Big Tech, ft. Bart Decrem

Hosted By Bastian Purrer

October 15, 2020

On humanID’s first installment of a Human Voices, a podcast series talking all things cyber and privacy, our founder Bastian Purrer interviews one of the most creative entrepreneurs in business, Bart Decrem. As a long time entrepreneur in both for-profit and non-profit sectors, the average internet user might recognize Decrem from his achievements at Disney Mobile Games and Mozilla Firefox or from Tapulous, the company that invented Tap Tap Revenge. His newest venture is Mozilla Builders, an accelerator aiming to fix the internet. During this conversation, Purrer and Decrem discuss the impact of Big Tech on the internet ecosystem and the role of capitalism and non-profits in the twenty-first century economy.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity by Ariana Garcia. Full podcast episode is available to be listened to at the top of the article and on Anchor here.

Bastian Purrer: Thank you Bart Decrem for joining our very first humanID podcast! You’ve been doing a lot of great things on the internet, including the Mozilla Builders fix-the-internet project accelerator. I would love to hear more about that. Fixing the internet is something we care a lot about at humanID.

Bart Decrem: I came to Northern California because of Steve Jobs and the bicycles for the mind.

The Mac had just come out, and it was this magical tool. Steve Jobs’s narrative was that this was how we amplify and leverage our brains to solve big problems.

[This prevails.] With the internet, we believe that it can bring us closer together and that it can allow people to rise to the level of their ambition and their dreams. [To an extent, this is true]; there’s a lot of beautiful things happening and a lot of opportunities being created and problems being solved.

But we have sort of blindly assumed that if you just let the markets decide and be creative then everything will turn out well. It’s just not necessarily that way. There’s no law that says technology will make the world a better place.

Like many, it’s become clear to me in the last couple of years that the concentration of power, spread of misinformation, and amount to which our data is being weaponized is being used against us.

I was at Mozilla for the launch of Firefox and really felt like we saved the internet. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I think without Firefox, the internet would have been more like Facebook.

Purrer: When you say Mozilla saved the internet, who would have been the Facebook? What would that have looked like? Would that have been like Microsoft taking over and controlling everything?

Decrem: Yes, something like that. I mean today a lot of times it might feel like the internet is Instagram or Facebook or WeChat or Amazon or the App Store. Depending where you are in the world, today’s news item can be about Apple telling a developer that, “Well you’re not giving us in-app purchases so why are you complaining? This is my platform, my walled garden and you should pay me a literal tax to be here and you have to play by my rules.” If you want to understand what the internet is like when the internet’s not open, then that’s all there is. So I think the internet would have been even more like this, if it hadn’t been for Firefox.

The biggest culprit might have been Microsoft for another ten years, doing the kind of things you see Facebook and Apple do today. It slows down and limits innovation, makes it harder to start a start-up because 30% of your margins just got swallowed, and your ability to disrupt incumbents gets severely hampered.

Purrer: It does feel like sometimes there’s a thirty percent tax on the internet, when it comes from the Play Store, or from Apple, and there’s also a margin that Facebook takes from all the advertising dollars. That’s also inefficient and would probably be lower in a more competitive marketplace.

Decrem: Wherever you look, chances are you’re going to be building on top of the Amazon developer stack. That’s great because it brings a lot of technology and power to startup entrepreneurs. It’s also a tax. You’re playing in an ecosystem constructed by one of the five biggest companies on the internet, and, thus, by their rules.

Purrer: The matter seems to be based on this idea that there will always be a next disruption, like Myspace became Facebook and so on. But it hasn’t really happened in the last 10 years. The same big players are still the garden wall. Do you think FAANG, Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon are in any way vulnerable and might be disrupted in the next 10 years?

Decrem: Yeah, I think there is an immutable law of capitalism that says that incumbents eventually get big and slow and then they bumble over. But, I think there is another law of capitalism that says it is a very efficient system. Preserving open markets usually requires aggressive government action to maintain them. If you look at the history of what made America great, it has been a commitment to preserving small businesses, local companies, etc. So I think over the last 30 years there has been less of a gatekeeper role played by the government, which preserved and created the kind of American dream as we have lived it in the past hundred years through anti-monopoly regulations and enforcements.

Now to your question, do I think those companies will topple? Eventually, yes. Because of how smart and efficient capitalism is, the behemoths of today are not like the behemoths of yesteryear.

So Google and Apple and Facebook… they’re so much smarter at staying fast. You look at Facebook and when they buy Instagram or WhatsApp or Giphy, they’re looking around the corner and realizing these are threats of disruption. [The built-in, designed] incentive and compensation systems are really good [at retaining users] and at keeping the speed and agility of a start-up so much later into their lifespan. I think they’ll be able to accumulate market dominance because of their portfolio and capital structures.