how the Web has become GAFA dependent

A datacenter, containing hundreds of servers.
A datacenter, containing hundreds of servers. Ian Lishman / Juice Images / Photononstop / Ian Lishman / Juice Images / Photononstop

Much has been written about the average user's dependence on free, effective and convenient services offered by those known as "GAFA" (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon).

A lesser known aspect is the Internet's dependence on these very large private companies. Because the global network has operated its industrial moult and now relies heavily on technologies and infrastructure developed by Google, Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and Microsoft. So much so that unprecedented questions now arise about the dependence of the Web as a whole on this handful of companies.

  • An ultra-dominated advertising market dominated by Google and Facebook

The online advertising market is largely dominated by Google and Facebook. The first with its sponsored search results, the second with the targeting of ads based on the profile of its users.

Today, this duopoly shares 51.3% of the global online advertising market, with respectively 103.73 and 67.37 billion dollars in 2019. In some regions of the world, the domination of both companies is even more broadly, reaching 74% of the sector's sales in Canada, or 61% in the United States in 2019.

Amazon comes fourth, behind the Chinese Alibaba. The company founded by Jeff Bezos represents only 4.2% of the market, but is growing rapidly. In 2018, it became the second largest online advertising salesman in the United States, surpassing Microsoft and slightly reducing Google, according to the specialized company eMarketer.

"Tech giants hold huge amounts of consumer data, but big powers involve big responsibilities, says Ruth Manielevitch, an expert from Taptica interviewed by raconteur. The industry needs an independent regulator to control the powers of the Web giants, reduce their monopolies and demand more transparency, which would boost consumer confidence. "

  • Hosting more and more centralized sites

Any Internet site, even the most basic, consists of files that must be stored on a server (which is simply a computer without a screen connected to the Internet); it is said that it "hosts" the site. It is probably this aspect that most illustrates the dependence on the digital giants. It is a crucial parameter for the speed of loading of their pages: the more quickly they will be "served" by the servers, the more efficient the site will be.

The hosting of large Internet sites was previously based on a fixed number of servers, which therefore had a limited capacity of "service": any significant growth in the number of users required the purchase or rental of additional servers to meet the demand otherwise, the site could "fall".

But the growth of the audience of websites and applications is such in the last ten years that it has been necessary to reinvent the hosting, which has become expensive and complicated for many companies. This is where "cloud computing" comes in: it is now the large Web companies that, with their giant infrastructures, host the vast majority of high-traffic sites on the Internet. The advantage is twofold: site publishers no longer have to deal with the hardware part and pay for the hosting compared to what they "consume" really, while hosts can focus on these bodies. technical trades and offer the power of their infrastructure (several million servers spread around the world).

At this little game, Amazon has a good head start over its competitors and dominates the global market. Launched early in 2004, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the most widely used cloud computing solution in the world, with nearly 40 percent of the global market share in mid-2018, according to Synergy Research Group. An impressive figure considering that AWS only had 31% market share just two years earlier, according to the same source.

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In 2012, a study by DeepField Networks indicated that one-third of the few million Internet users surveyed visited an AWS-dependent site every day. Big customers include Netflix, Pinterest, Slack, Airbnb, The Guardian, NASA, Adobe, Expedia, Reddit … even Apple uses the services of the company founded by Jeff Bezos for its digital services (such as iCloud). According to CNBC, the Apple brand spends more than $ 30 million each month on these services.

Amazon's dominance is notable on the most important sites: in the top 10 000 sites with the largest traffic, Amazon holds 14.5% of the market share.

The business is very profitable: in 2018, AWS accounted for 11% of the company's revenue, but 59% of operating profit. Amazon's direct competitors, even if they are far behind, are still growing faster than AWS. Google, with its Cloud Platform, and Microsoft with its Azure solution, become in recent years increasingly serious rivals, with respective growth of 108% and 124% per year in 2016. What to do a little shade at leader.

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Nevertheless, the unprecedented concentration of the Internet market and infrastructure in the hands of a small number of companies gives rise to many concerns about the technological dependence that is emerging vis-à-vis these giants.

The two major failures experienced by AWS's storage service, Amazon S3, in February and September 2017, rekindled these fears as so many sites fell together with Amazon. According to Apica Systems, 54 of the hundred largest online retail sites in the United States were affected by the February 2017 outage. "This concentration has implications for corporate competition, but also affects the robustness of the Internet itself", wrote the magazine The Wired after the first failure.

  • "Open source" and GAFA, a mutual dependency

Although they have entire armies of seasoned developers, GAFA has largely built their technology on the knowledge provided by the "open source", a huge reserve of computer code open access and reusable, subject to a license . In the world of open source, we can use the code available. In return, we are committed to sharing the improvements that we bring to the benefit of the entire community.

A principle that has benefited Google, Apple and Facebook, but they also largely contributed to change the Web and promote innovation.

The most famous example is surely Android, Google's mobile operating system with which it has emerged as one of the main players in open source. By sharing the code of this operating system installed on 88% of the world's smartphones, Google and all those who have seized Android have massively contributed to the evolution of the paragon of open source: the Linux kernel.

Less known but just as important was the invention by Google of "node JS". Behind this technical name hides a tool that has revolutionized the development of interfaces by easily allowing the display in real time on many sites and applications like Uber, LinkedIn, or Trello … A solution that is preferred by nearly half of developers, according to a study conducted by the StackOverflow website in 2018.

Apple, too, is a contributor to "open source", since its so-called "proprietary" operating systems (MacOS, iOS) are based on a branch of Unix which also comes from Linux. The Cupertino company does not hesitate to claim open source as being at the "heart" of its activity. Among its massively reused projects is the WebKit engine installed on Internet browsers and many system interfaces.

For its part, Facebook was the first to place its data architecture in open source. The social network is also the author of the famous library "ReactJS" on which Netflix for example has built its architecture, and whose code it shares since its publication in 2013.

On the other hand, if all the giants of the Web have undeniably known to profit from the benefits of a free code, all do not play the game of contributing equitably to this universe. So, according to our colleagues from Numerama, Amazon is "Probably the worst student of open source". Qualified as"Code vacuum cleaner", the company has built a bad reputation by massively using the code at its disposal and contributing very little.

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