It’s hard to ignore the increasingly pronounced tremors as the economic landscape shifts beneath our feet. The presumed solid bedrock of well-regulated trades and services supplying predictable employment prospects, of worker and consumer welfare under-girded by frameworks of rights and contract, is apparently splitting asunder. New norms of economic precarity are emerging, with workers labouring thanklessly on zero-hours contracts or rushing to complete piecework tasks for others, herded by platforms whilst technically self-employed.
Similar fears arise in other corners of society. The growing panic about fake news reflects less a concern that public gullibility is increasing, but rather a worry that well-regulated journalism is threatened by new models of information exchange that allow public debate to be ever more cynically steered and fragmented. In more visceral terms, we read about abuses of power where ride-sharing drivers assault their customers, or flat-owners use hidden cameras to spy on their tourist guests. In each of these cases, it’s easy to believe that hard-won social progress of recent decades has been lost to technological innovation and the regulatory slipperiness of the platform society. But as ever, reality is more complicated than media headlines would give us to believe.
In many ways, we’re already too embedded in the platform society to turn back the clock. On a typical day, most of us will interact with platform companies in multiple ways. We might use a ride-sharing app instead of a licensed taxi, listen to music online, buy a present on Amazon or scroll through our social media feeds. Even our exchanges with government may be facilitated by commercial platforms enabling citizen transactions at speed. Our only option is to embrace it, (or at least accept it), and more importantly to analyse, assess and critique.
The neoliberal logic of the platform society is one of efficiency and opportunity. Yet as Tarleton Gillespie has noted, there is some rhetorical sleight of hand in the very idea of the platform society. In its original computational meaning, a platform referred simply to something that could be programmed on or for. But that usage has been lost in everyday speech, where online platforms are instead understood as go-betweens, providing new spaces for speech or monetised exchange. In policy debates, the concept becomes even more value-laden, with platforms often portraying themselves as neutral hosts, providing not just space for speech or trade, but open space for free speech and faster, more efficient transactions. Platforms are, in Gillespie’s words, inherently political. They need to be understood (and regulated) not just as new economic actors but fundamentally political ones, playing an increasingly important role in distributive justice, namely the business of who gets what, when and from whom.
The reason for this is that digital platforms do far more than enable us to communicate or transact easily. Instead they govern the types of transactions that are possible, and the terms on which they take place. The alteration of key lines of code can make it tougher for a worker to get a job, affect who can buy or sell or make certain types of content invisible to the world. There’s nothing new in the observation that digital platforms govern: Larry Lessig’s proclamation that ‘code is law’ has been informing the ways we make policy in Internet-related matters for 18 years now. But with the advent of the platform society, there is novelty in the extent to which code now rules our lives, and the multiplicity of ways this threatens to undermine prior regulatory certainties. Nowhere does this matter more than in politics, where the expanding role of social media platforms in serving political content and shaping our speech opportunities is impossible to ignore.
It’s tempting, from this perspective, just to panic: close them down, break them up, make them pay. But it’s impossible to go backwards, and our regulatory toolkits are not fit for purpose. Calls from some parties to use principles of competition law to tackle the market power of Google or Facebook miss a rather fundamental point. The issue is not one of consumer harm where search and social media companies are able to keep their prices artificially high. Nor is there clear evidence of innovation being stifled – new services, apps and products emerge constantly, and even where (as with Facebook acquiring Whatsapp), successful innovators are bought up by the tech giant, this is lawful so long as the purchased company was not a competitor. The big five tech companies may be enormous, but as academic legal scholars have noted, competition law is not the right hammer to crack this nut.
If we’re genuinely concerned about the social and political problems of the platform society, we need to go back to first principles. Governments have traditionally regulated markets and businesses in order to protect worker, consumer or citizen rights, counter externalities and to collect taxes to support this role. Instead of relying on broken tools such as data protection regulations that rely too heavily on user consent, or competition law that looks narrowly at pricing but not data accumulation and gatekeeper power, we need to start afresh. At this juncture, regulatory innovation is needed far more than technological innovation. Laws fit for the platform society must be remade with a commitment to favour citizen, consumer and worker rights over historic vested interests or corporate power. Platform providers need to step up and demonstrate their commitment to serving not just shareholders but the public interest. And last but not least, we all need to reflect on the ethics of our own practices and demand more from the companies who serve us. We all have a role to play in ensuring a better future for the platform society.
Professor Victoria Nash is the Oxford Internet Institute’s deputy director and policy and research fellow. She focuses on linking OII research to policy and practitioner communities.