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Over the past few decades, online platforms have become ever more powerful across many areas of our lives. From Twitter to Deliveroo, these platforms have disrupted entire societal institutions and processes, replacing them with new kinds of companies whose corporate decisions can circumvent or even supersede public governance. They now shape our social, economic and political worlds, structuring how we relate to each other, how we work and how we engage in politics. As the digital world develops and more of our interactions happen online, their power increases.
Platforms are key enablers of new power, in both good and bad forms. The #MeToo movement wouldn’t have been possible without the social media platform Twitter. The mechanism of a hashtag to become the collector of common experience, the rallying point for change, could not have existed without the platform and the user mechanics on which it is founded. As Timms and Heimans describe:
“New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”84
Platforms can grow very fast, are constantly changing and wield very real power. As of July 2021, 51.15 million people use Facebook in the UK.85 Facebook enables neighbours to organise litter picks and fundraise for local charities, but it also allows far-right conspiracy theories to spread. Many people are pointing out the link between polarisation in our society and social media algorithms. From speeches in the Senate about filter bubbles86 to articles about genocides caused by Facebook87, the structure of our political discourse is increasingly shaped by how social media platforms are designed.
Yet it’s not just social media; platforms also affect our economic structures. According to the TUC, 14.7% of working adults now work via gig economy platforms, compared to 5.8% in 201688. Airbnb is disrupting local housing markets as more landlords move away from residential to short term holiday lets.89 Tinder has 66 million active users each month and is the medium through which modern intimacy is navigated and millions of relationships are started.90 The scale and pervasiveness of online platforms across so many dimensions of our common life makes it essential to interrogate their power and how it operates.
The growth of digital interaction has led to the creation of huge market monopolies enjoyed by technology companies on an unprecedented scale. Alphabet (Google, Android), Meta (Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram etc) and Amazon (Alexa, Kindle) are all worth over £1 trillion dollars.91 They all operate on a global scale, across national boundaries and are increasingly buying up related services, creating international monopolies. This “first mover” advantage means that the company that fills the gap first gains an advantage, e.g. Facebook dominates social networks, Google is synonymous with searching, Amazon monopolises retail marketplaces etc. VCs are willing to invest huge amounts of money betting on the next platform to achieve monopoly status92.
In response, regulation of platforms all too often takes place retrospectively, meaning that the harms caused by these new forms can go unchecked for some time. Platforms are a space in which the boundaries between old and new power need to be negotiated and balanced. How can we ensure fairness and accountability on platforms, without losing the freedom needed for new power to thrive? What does that kind of regulation look like? With the launch of the “Metaverse” and as lines between the virtual and real life become blurred, these questions are becoming more urgent.
Online platforms underpin much of our everyday lives. They now co-exist with our physical spaces such as pubs, community centres, newspapers, shops or high streets. Some platforms, such as Uber and AirBnB, are online versions of a marketplace, connecting suppliers to consumers. Others structure and mediate our online relationships through dating apps or social networks. This is about more than just Facebook; different forms of platform now control large parts of our lives and our social interactions:
You can also segment platforms based on how they generate revenue. Facebook or Instagram are part of the “attention economy”, generating revenue by monetising attention and focusing on data extraction. Other platforms are “commission platforms” linking consumers to suppliers such as Deliveroo and Uber, while a further category is funded through member subscriptions such as Spotify or Netflix93. What they have in common is that they are fundamentally changing how we behave.
One way a platform exerts power is through what it allows users to do and the behaviours it encourages. While we can all set up groups on Facebook, it is Facebook that controls the ways we engage with the platform - and we can only set up these groups in particular ways within a certain menu of options. And while companies are making decisions to improve user experience, they can also shape our interactions in ways that maximise revenue, or harness attention. For example, on Facebook you can react to statuses using one of 7 emotion reactions: angry, sad, love, shocked, laugh, like, care. Why choose these reactions?94 Because by creating a measuring scale of human emotions it’s easier to produce valuable data which can be used by companies to improve their advertising, while also arguably narrowing our own emotional ranges.
Some companies are beginning to think more deeply about how their platforms are designed. For example, Twitter has experimented in attempting to improve discourse on the platform, which tends to incentivise outrage and oversimplification, perhaps due to the inherent difficulties of communicating a nuanced argument within a character limit. From limiting replies to allowing downvotes, to prioritising responses in a thread, the platform has run a number of experiments to try to improve user experience. Yet these are still features that are introduced without consulting the user; as individuals we cannot choose to accept or reject them.
Platforms also exert power by controlling access to their services. For example, to set up a Twitter account all you need is an email address, but to create an account to become a driver on Uber you need extensive paperwork. These rules are sometimes governed by law, but sometimes by decisions made by the platform itself. This can lead to arbitrary decisions which are difficult to appeal or change. Uber has tried to verify driver identity and DBS checks using facial recognition software. Some driver unions are campaigning against this, because so many drivers were misidentified through the software and then went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London. This particularly affects certain groups: research has shown that facial recognition systems can have an especially high error rate when used to identify people from BAME communities.95
Platforms also make decisions about what users are allowed to say and do online and how they can interact with their products. Twitter must often make these kinds of decisions when it comes to banning accounts on the basis of abuse or hate speech, often in the heat of a crisis. On 9th January 2020, Twitter banned former US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which was followed by nearly 89 million people96, after his posts in relation to the Capitol riots. Platforms are making decisions about content moderation, sometimes by making rulings about content and free speech which differ from the law. These rulings can be difficult to challenge, both because of technical reasons and due to the lack of democratic governance or formal scrutiny. Who decides?
Platform owners decide who is allowed to offer services on them and the terms on which they do that. They control how open or closed to design their software and how other entities can relate to them. While many of the technology giants have built closed systems, open source or open licensed systems have appeared in response; these are systems that enable the code which controls the platform to be copied and adapted, allowing users to interact with the system as they choose. This is significant because often the closed nature of platforms means that monopolies are more likely to develop due to network effects. They have a captive audience, which means their attempts to replicate existing products or platforms are more successful because they can build in full integration for their existing users. Decisions about the level of openness of a platform to other builders or developers is a key source of power.
So how might we respond to the ‘new’ power of platforms? Different approaches to regulation are emerging. Some include applying existing regulatory frameworks while others involve creating new mechanisms which operate at the technical level and are in some cases yet to be thought of! What follows is a rough framework for the kinds of interventions that could be made to regulate the markets around platforms, the companies that run the platforms and the product itself.
One route would be to break up existing platforms using traditional anti-monopoly laws. This is an approach that is useful when it comes to platforms buying other platforms such as Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram or Whatsapp, but it can be limited when it comes to breaking up platforms. This is due to network effects, as previously discussed, which mean natural monopolies emerge around particular platforms.
One way around this, which commentators such as Benedict Evans97 have suggested that is to use regulation to introduce competition for the services built on top of monopoly or near monopoly platforms.
A more robust approach is put forward by Elizabeth Warren who has proposed separating out the “platform utility” component from providing services on the platform98. This would explicitly break up the existing platforms, making them smaller and therefore easier to regulate by the government. There are also strong arguments from academics such as Tommaso Valletti that within existing platforms there are some natural structural "break points" that would make this process easier.116
Another approach to opening up platforms is called interoperability. The Internet, email and the World Wide Web are concrete examples of interoperability. For example, you can email someone with a gmail account from a hotmail account without you both needing to be part of gmail or hotmail. The different email services can interact with each other through open standards. So if social media became interoperable, I could message you on Messenger from Whatsapp, or you could use your Facebook account to join a Discord server. This kind of digital world requires a slightly different online infrastructure from the one we currently have, with open standards and better data portability. Organisations such as Redencentralize99 are beginning to create the platforms, tools and infrastructure this kind of ecosystem might need.
Another approach to platform market regulation, devised by Rufus Pollock, author of The Open Revolution, suggests a system of “remuneration rights”. Users of the internet would all pay a subscription fee (or the government would fund this) to use and maintain a social media network, but social media providers would gain revenue based on the numbers of users they attract. This would provide a free-market-like but open-compatible way to fund innovators and prevent monopolies100.
One way to break down platforms’ monopoly on data ownership would be to create new forms of data storage, either through individual systems that allow users to hold their own data history in their own account (like Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid system)101 or through the more collective operation of Data Trusts - “a structure whereby data is placed under the control of a board of trustees with a fiduciary responsibility to look after the interests of the beneficiaries — you, me, society.” Data Trust are a new kind of institution which “offers all of us the chance of a greater say in how our data is collected, accessed and used by others. This goes further than limiting data collecting and access to protect our privacy; it promotes the beneficial use of data, and ensures these benefits are widely felt across society. In a sense, data trusts are to the data economy what trade unions are to the labour economy.102”
A final way to break down monopolies and to stop platforms dominating markets financially is by making them completely open source. This means the code for the platform is open, so users themselves can redesign them and adapt them for their own purposes. For example, Wikipedia allows its moderators and editors to create their own plug-ins and digital tools, which are designed and built by community members themselves, to work alongside the platform; an interesting ecosystem has emerged as the platform has changed and developed through open contribution to meet the needs of its users and editors. It’s an unusual example of a completely open-source platform, run for free by volunteers which attracts billions of users from around the world.
Another way to approach platform regulation is to regulate the company itself.
For example, Uber’s power was limited through the application of employment law when GMB won a lawsuit to ensure all workers were deemed employees rather than contractors and therefore entitled to a living wage, sick pay and a pension108.
Similarly, new laws can be passed by governments to add new responsibilities that the company running the platform must fulfil, for example, the UK’s online safety bill introduces a new “duty of care” for online platforms.
Another approach to regulating the companies could be to treat platforms as “public utilities” and public infrastructure. As Josh Simmons and Dipayan Ghosh argue:
“Facebook and Google should be treated as a new kind of public utility — utilities for democracy. These are public utilities in a far more fundamental, political sense than the narrow, economic concept of corporations that exercise a monopoly over public goods. Their unilateral control over the algorithmic infrastructure of the public sphere concentrates forms of social and political as well as economic power, shaping how we understand and interpret the world around us, discuss matters of fundamental public interest, organize social and political groups, and make choices about matters of collective self-government.110”
They propose a framework for regulation that ensures public utilities operate in accordance with public values, provides targeted transparency around how algorithms operate, imposes firewalls between commercial functions (such as advertising) and public functions such as the governance of public debate and has some elements of democratic governance.
As more platforms blur the lines between public social infrastructure and private service, this approach certainly has some merits. However, there are some difficulties about defining what is a “public utility” and what isn’t. Are dating platforms a “public utility”? Social media platforms blur the lines here because they are new spaces which do many different things: they are simultaneously newspapers, public discussion spaces, private conversations, broadcasters and publishers. They are many things at once which means it’s harder to use existing frameworks to understand them.
Governments could sponsor different models of ownership and systems of governance. Many tech platforms begin as start-ups and become more traditionally corporate as they grow. As they continue to grow and become more like public utilities, facing larger questions of regulation, governance and ethics, their corporate form may need to change once more. Some are suggesting that the best longer-term structure for tech platforms could be a switch to co-operative worker ownership or through an “exit to community strategy” towards user ownership. According to Wired, in 2018 Uber and Airbnb wrote letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission proposing to be allowed to grant company equity to their users—their drivers and hosts, respectively:
“Somehow, what seemed impossibly utopian in 2017 was now the corporate strategy of the biggest gig platforms. Without much fanfare, user ownership was quietly emerging as an industry trend. Airbnb’s letter made the reasoning plain: “The increased alignment of incentives between sharing economy companies and participants would benefit both.” Platforms could get more loyalty from users who might otherwise come and go on a whim. Equity awards, meanwhile, could cut users into the benefits of company ownership, which are usually reserved for elite employees or people who already have wealth to invest.”111
Longer term it may be worth making these transitions from start up to corporate to cooperative easier to make it a more standard governance lifecycle for technology platforms.
Some platforms are already owned by users or workers; for example, within the gig economy we are seeing the setting up of worker owned cooperatives such as cooperative delivery services and private hire services. Many of these kinds of structures have only started to emerge and will take longer to scale up, but could be a good future template for platforms.
One way to start to regulate platforms at the product level is to regulate the algorithms that structure them. There have been some interesting proposals around “algorithmic accountability” especially in relation to access to public services, as concerns about racial biases within algorithms become more prevalent. Opening up the current black box of the algorithms that run many platforms could give those who use them more control over how their online environments are constructed, for example deciding to make social media “timelines” less polarising, or shaping the algorithm that controls their Tinder dating suggestions.
Another approach might be to empower people to utilise the platforms in new ways, like empowering communities to build their own governance systems, for example by providing governance processes and templates.
One other potential upstream intervention might be to try to ensure people working on platform design are more conscious of the impact of their choices. Influencing the people designing platforms is a goal of the Time well spent movement spearheaded by Tristan Harris, a former Google employee. Harris started out by giving a presentation on “a call to minimise distraction and respect user’s attention” while working for Google, which encouraged his peers to think about how notifications were compelling people to look at their phones114. This began a conversation about the ethics of design which culminated in the creation of the Centre for Humane Technology which lobbies platforms to design their services differently115.