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Forget Google, time to end the Visa-MasterCard duopoly


In the last few years, you’ve likely seen a fair few comments about monopolies in the tech industry, and suggestions for breaking them up. These comments usually revolve around the big FAANG companies (or at least, Google, Amazon and Facebook) and suggest the power they hold is unhealthy for society.

And they’re right. It is unhealthy, and definitely acts as a good reason to break up said companies.

But they’re not the only ones that need it, nor the most important cases. No, there are two others that are far more dangerous to the internet, businesses and society right now.

Namely, the payment processing companies, like Visa and MasterCard. These companies handle billions of credit card transactions a day, and have a level of power the likes of Google can only dream of.

As Reuters points out, their marketshare for credit cards is about what Google and Apple’s is for mobile OSes

Like almost complete control over what can be sold online. Ever wonder why certain things are difficult to buy via PayPal or other similar systems? Why Patreon ban certain types of creators really easily? Why adult sites find it so tough to process card payments?

Because these guys set the rules, and those rules ban a lot of content that’s either offensive or brings high risk of fraud. It’s why adult sites usually keep switching payment processors, or running ads from less than savoury networks.

So you’ve got a huge part of the monetary system controlled by parties with zero interest in neutrality, and power beyond government control.

What’s more, abuse of this power has already happened. Back in 2010, Visa cut off access to WikiLeaks, rendering the site unable to receive donations as a result. This was fortunately then overturned (by a Dutch court order no less), but it’s a scary precedent regardless, and shows just how easily ‘undesirable’ media outlets and creators can be deprived of their income by companies like this one.

And that’s not the only issue they bring either. No, their control over the system means outages are very serious indeed.

Just think back to the UK in June 2018, when Visa went down across the country. That caused a huge incident that took thousands of businesses and millions of credit cards offline.

Which in turn likely caused billions of dollars in economic losses, all due to a simple network accident. One small issue, whole economies on the verge of collapse.

And it could potentially have been even worse. Had their few competitors also gone down, literally all electronic payments would have broken at once. Had it been a worldwide issue, and basically the entire world economy would be unusable for hours or days.

This in turn also means it’s a perfect target for malicious enemy forces. Theoretically like Iran, North Korea, etc. All of whom have a vested interest in their rivals losing some of their technological advantages over them.

So there’s a potential cybersecurity disaster waiting to happen there.

Though it’s not as if our governments likely aren’t using these companies and systems for questionable purposes as is. They’re a perfect way to target and cripple regimes we don’t like at this point in time, and would almost certainly be cut off in the case of a war or major conflict.

Hence neither group really has reason to trust them. They’re dangerous for our own societies, dangerous for our opponents and a huge security risk regardless of the situation, plus a force for censoring people who’ve done nothing other than annoyed the ‘wrong’ people overall.

But surprisingly, they’re not worth breaking up.

And I know what you’ll say. That I made a perfectly good argument for doing just that. That with all those downsides, breaking up Visa and MasterCard (and perhaps some competitors) is the best way forward.

However, here’s the thing. It’s not true.

Since at the end of the day, the problem isn’t just that these companies are too big, it’s that their industry has been left entirely privatised at all.

Cause payment processing for individuals and businesses isn’t a competitive market. It’s not some ‘optional’ product the world can exist without.

It’s a crucial part of a large chunk of the world’s businesses. It’s crucial for the internet to function, and its absence makes it incredibly difficult to live in a modern society.

Hence the solution isn’t just more competition. It’s to regulate the whole industry as utilities, or even turn it into neutral, global infrastructure.

This would mean that in the same way everyone has access to water, electricity, or public transport, everyone has access to payment processing, regardless of their nationality, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, wealth or anything else. Reactions to people asking to cut people off from receiving money should be treated like an attempt to say, remove a police station’s access to water or electricity; called absurd and ignored.

It’s time we called it a day for the large payment processing companies, and regulated their entire market as utilities like people are expecting us to.

Otherwise, individuals, organisations and businesses alike will suffer their ridiculous rules and limitations.

Thanks for reading!

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