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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple's move this week to lock out Facebook and Google employees from internal versions of their own iPhone apps was a strong stand on behalf of user privacy. At the same time, it was a stunning display of the absolute control Apple has over what runs on the phones it makes.

Why it matters: The squabble reminds us that all these companies have become gatekeepers with enormous power. One way to map the contours of their turfs is to examine where each can say "no."

Apple controls our phones (if they're iPhones).

  • If you have software to distribute to iPhone/iPad users, you are at Apple's mercy — if the company kicks you out of the store, you've got no customers.
  • Android has more users globally than iOS, and it's less tightly controlled by Google.

Facebook controls our access to people.

  • Through its billions-wide "social graph," it controls much of the world's interpersonal communication, so if Facebook removes your account, you can't connect to your personal network.
  • Others, like LinkedIn and Twitter, have more specialized versions of this power.
  • To be sure, email and phone calls remain an option.

Google controls our access to information.

  • It's the starting point for getting answers to nearly every question we have — via search, maps, YouTube's video trove and many other services.
  • If Google chooses to block some piece of content, it can render that information effectively invisible to much of the world.
  • Wikipedia and other websites still offer independent knowledge sources, but more often than not Google works as their prime distributor.

Amazon controls our access to goods and many software services.

  • Its online store is the most powerful funnel for purchasers around: If a product isn't listed there — or if it's listed too low — a huge number of us simply aren't going to buy it.
  • Through Amazon Web Services, Amazon runs the backend for a large chunk of the internet industry. That gives it the power to shut down apps and sites that depend on it — at least until they can move their products to some other cloud provider.

These powers to say "no" depend on market-dominant positions and near-monopolies.

  • Many of them, like Google's power over information or Amazon's power over e-commerce, can theoretically be challenged by competitors but in practice would be very hard to dislodge.
  • Some, like Apple's power over iOS apps, are absolute.

The big picture: The early, "permissionless" internet and web found a key to growth by connecting the world and bypassing gatekeepers.

  • We've come nearly full circle in two decades.
  • Many innovators working in the crypto/blockchain world hope to reverse that trip — but haven't yet built systems and products that the mass of users are willing to embrace.
  • By contrast, most of the work in machine-learning-based artificial intelligence that's already beginning to be widely adopted depends on proprietary dragon-hoards of data controlled by large companies.

Long view: Tech has seen dominant gatekeepers before, like IBM and Microsoft, lose their centrality and evolve into mature money-making machines with lower public profiles.

  • But the tenure of the current crop of tech giants shows few indications of approaching obsolescence.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court rejects Trump's attempt to shield documents from Jan. 6 committee

Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

The Supreme Court rejected on Wednesday night a bid by former President Trump to block the release of documents and records from his administration to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Why it matters: Trump asked the Supreme Court to step in and block the release of the documents last month after a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously denied his attempt to prevent the committee from obtaining the materials.

Senate Republicans block voting rights bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate floor on Jan. 18. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Republicans blocked Democrats' voting rights legislation from coming to a final vote on Wednesday in what was largely viewed as a doomed effort from the start.

Why it matters: The failed vote underscores the Democratic Party's current uphill battle to pass sweeping legislation in a 50-50 Senate.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden says Russia likely to invade Ukraine

President Biden addressed the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine during a press briefing Wednesday, saying of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "my guess is he will move in."

Why it matters: U.S. officials have issued a series of warnings about Russia's threatening military buildup on the border with Ukraine, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying in Kyiv earlier Wednesday that Russia could invade "on very short notice."

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