Crises and Possibilities: Making the Platforms Work
by Will Stronge
The new IPPR report on the digital economy paints a stark picture of the monopoly-prone platform economy and the political, economic and social problems it has exacerbated. The authors also provide some concrete proposals for the repurposing of this economy in the direction of greater equality, democracy and market competition. They make a few important claims:
– The ‘universal platforms’ (those which are occupying, or attempting to occupy, monopoly positions) aim to ‘expand and enclose’ their hold on particular markets, ultimately driven by a ‘boundless ambition’ for universal integration into personal and social life.
– Due to the sheer amount of data gathered, and their ownership of large amounts of the world’s data infrastructure, the platforms are poised to dominate Artificial Intelligence markets (which will in turn mean the ability to significantly determine the direction of travel of the future of work).
– Due to the ability to command such ubiquity, the platform business model is poised to cause economic, social and political problems (if it isn’t already). Briefly, these include the stifling of innovation that comes with monopoly power, the platforms’ contributions to the declining share of national income going to labour and finally the erosion of the public sphere (which I will focus on below).
The report’s most radical (yet urgent) proposal to counter these tendencies is to regulate the platforms that provide ‘natural monopolies’ as public goods, or utilities (p. 25). Five activities, currently provided by the platforms, are singled out in this regard:
Searching (Google Search and Amazon)
Connecting (major social networks)
Matching (where consumers meet third-party suppliers. Amazon is a good example)
Communicating (core providers of communication services like email)
Infrastructure (cloud services that act as the backbone of the digital economy such as Amazon’s AWS)
These functions are no longer optional in contemporary capitalism, and therefore should be regulated accordingly, with common use in mind.
Further, the authors recommend that data – and an appropriate infrastructure to support it – should be organised as a collective good, opening up the possibility for rival platforms to utilise anonymous data sets to create new services. This in turn allows for a healthier competition in the platform economy and we can see how this opens up new avenues for a potential state ‘entrepreneur’ (Mazzucato 2013) to update its public services, e.g. with something similar to a ‘Khan’s cars’ system perhaps.
Drawing on different aspects of this fascinating paper, I’d like to first explore further the topic of the platform model’s relation to the political economy of journalism. While noting the deep structural problems we are seeing playing out in this field, I think there is a significant opportunity made available to modern democracies by the platform economy for the revitalisation of a pluralistic media landscape. (Since writing this piece, the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has expressed support for a democratisation along similar lines, sparking some interesting debate. It is excellent news that this issue is firmly on the political agenda for those concerned with the concentration of economic and communicative power).
Finally, I offer some thoughts on what platform regulation might (or could) be the beginning of, as we get deeper into the 21st century.
The platforms’ challenge to journalism (and to democracy)
The report notes that the universal platforms have contributed to an ‘erosion of the public sphere’ and to a ‘democratic weakening’ (p. 19). This erosion is more complex and worrying than just the spread of ‘fake news’ on Facebook however, and it’s worth spelling out how the platforms have affected journalism, the political economy of the news media more broadly and why that matters.
It should go without saying that journalism is important for any democracy. An informed citizenry requires analysis, critique and accurate information regarding events, policies, economic realities and so on, alongside entertainment, sport and other features. A high level of reporting and coverage is even more important now that we face (or have already entered) multiple crises: climate change, record levels of inequality, the crisis of work, the erosion of welfare systems and more. This is why it is important to have a free, pluralistic press with sufficient numbers of paid journalists, who are held to professional standards, covering as much as possible, from the global to the local. This ‘ideal-type’ of the news media obviously has never been fully realised, but has always been the aim of what journalism should be in democratic societies.
For most of the twentieth century the mass press was held afloat by advertising revenues – the print media was simply the best way for companies to get their products under the noses of potential consumers. Ad-targeting on this model had to be broad and, from today’s viewpoint, rudimentary; different publications (and advert campaigns) for different ‘types’ – young, old, businessmen, women, working class, upper class, etc. The access to the population was what companies paid for (and what journalism effectively traded on). With the rise of the Internet, and specifically the set of network capabilities that the universal platforms supply, advertising in the digital realm has been abandoning journalism at an alarming rate, and this is due to an improved level of access that the news media – both in print and online – simply can’t compete with. As one commentator summarises:
Digital distribution is not succeeding because it is stealing the content of the commercial mass media; it is succeeding because it is a much more efficient mechanism for aggregating audiences and distributing information (Cooper, 2011, p. 336-7)
At the core of this shift exists the duopoly between Facebook and Google. The pair accounted for 84% of global advertising spending in 2017 (excluding China), commanding over half of the UK’s digital ad market. Robert McChesney, Victor Pickard and other communications theorists have been making a crucial argument for years in this regard: monopolising capital, largely via the universal platforms, has effectively moulded the internet against the old business model of journalism, and we’ve yet to come up with an adequate alternative (McChesney 2013; McChesney and Pickard, 2011). As McChesney explains:
On the Internet advertising is rapidly shifting to what is called “smart” advertising, meaning that advertisers purchase desired audiences through huge ad networks run by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. These networks then find the desired target audiences at whatever website they go to. There is very little money in this for journalism websites, or content producers writ large. In the USA newspaper websites got 100 percent of the revenues for their digital ads in 2003; by 2010 their figure was down to 20 percent. I suspect it is even less today .
Things are also bleak for the news media here in the UK. On one analysis, traditional (print) ad turnover for newspapers will have fallen from £1.5 billion in 2011 to £533 million by 2019 and revenue from digital ads will not be able to plug the gap. As ad revenues continue to dry up, news media organisations cut staff, pressurise working practices, cover fewer regions and liquidate publications to save costs, meaning (for expediency) a greater, ‘churnalist’ reliance on official sources, business press releases and large news organisations such as PA and Reuters for information (Davies 2008). The quality of reporting subsides as the sheer quantity of resources declines. The sheer amount of misinformation, propaganda and lies that saturates the media landscape has been the subject of extensive study and these more recent pressures are exacerbating the situation (e.g. Cardiff University 2008; Davies 2008).
Of course, we should have no sympathy for the sensationalist, click-baiting and/or consistently misleading practices of the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express, etc. while they too suffer from this process; the monopoly that a handful of firms exercise over the UK’s media is a huge problem for a functioning democracy in itself! But we should be concerned about the hollowing out of journalism’s financial core for the sake of any and all good reporting that holds power to account (i.e. for the sake of a strong democracy). Sadly, the main vehicle for this journalism has been (and even in the age of the internet, continues to be) large news organisations funded by advertising. We may not need newspapers anymore (and to many of them good riddance), but we do need journalism.
"It may be exciting and heartening to talk of a global multitude or of the coming insurrection. But it is surely better to focus on the creation of an autonomous public opinion, since the majority in society can only exercise sovereign control once it has access to reliable information about the world and itself, once it has constituted itself as a public. Whatever else one wishes to change, a reformed system of information provides the only hope to securing that change by democratically legitimate means."
- Dan Hind, The Return of the Public
What is to be done?
How do we reground journalism in a secure and sustainable funding landscape? There are a number of options available (and an approach that cobbles a few of them together is most likely to be effective).
Walled gardens are one strategy (Simon 2011), where access to content is permitted via paid subscriptions (e.g. The Telegraph). But this has two obvious weaknesses. Firstly, and most obviously, if this model were adopted across the board it would mean that the news is no longer available to all (as some won’t or can’t pay for the content). Second, this could (perhaps would) lead to a demand for, and supply of, other sources that would simply report (and replicate) the content from inside the walled garden, undoing or at least diluting the model.
Non-, or partially-walled, subscriptions are an option that The Guardian and The Financial Times have used somewhat effectively. The general, overall quality of these two publications has garnered a devoted readership who are willing to pay for their content. However the question we must ask once again concerns scale: how many publications can we expect to be able to accrue similar support from individuals’ purses (especially once people have already come to expect the content for free)? We probably don’t want to just settle for a handful of (relatively decent) firms, and only their workforces, to uphold the fourth estate.
Citizen journalism is another option put forward, with some seeing the decline in professional journalists as an exciting opportunity for the (re)emergence of the citizen as the subject who can speak truth to power (Usher 2011). Certainly, the idea of the public taking its own democracy into hand is appealing. Peter Juke’s work on the Daniel Morgan case is a good example of just this. But can we expect enough citizens to undertake this level of depth of investigation, which we would surely expect journalists to be functioning at after all, especially if they are carrying out this work outside of a full-time job and/or family responsibilities? Equally, can we rely on driven citizens to be active in the numbers that would be needed to be able to replace current news media staff, or to rival the large press firms (PA or Reuters)?
Certainly, there currently exist a great many media organisations that currently produce excellent political, social and economic analysis, often far beyond what we find in the major players. I’m thinking about Novara Media, New Socialist, Red Pepper, New Internationalist, Real Media, openDemocracy and so on. But these are often volunteer-run, have relatively few journalists ‘on the ground’ and, despite their incredible resourcefulness, do not have the reach of the large news organisations.
A publicly-owned, democratically-governed media fund might be a way forward (McChesney, 2013; Hind 2010; Aaron 2011; Hind and Mills 2018). What would this look like? We already have the BBC, which, to its credit, spotlights content that private broadcasters tend to avoid (this is also the case elsewhere with state-sponsored media). But other, radical models from around the world are also instructive. In France, for example, nearly 13% of newspapers’ total revenues come from state subsidies in recent times (Benson 2011). There, the state hands money through subsidies to a plurality of publications from across the political spectrum. On Rodney Benson’s analysis of the spectrum of French papers, this funding stream does not entail that state-backed media tend to toe the ideological line of the establishment (as we might expect). Rather, Benson’s analysis of seven of the leading newspapers in France shows that they are ‘at least or more critical than their U.S. counterparts’ that exist within a contrasting, thoroughly marketised news landscape. ‘Critical’ here is defined as ‘substantive critical statements…about government, political parties, businesses, and other powerful organizations’. For example, you will often get Le Monde, or La Croix criticising one of their financial backers (the state), but you are much less likely to find The Washington Post regularly criticising Jeff Bezos, who now owns them. Similar studies of the news media in Sweden have revealed similar results: the press became more critical around the same time that government subsidies began in the 1970s (Johansson et al 2006).
Pushing the existing model further, Dan Hind, like others, has called for a democratisation and extension (devolvement?) of the BBC’s activities/funds in order to bolster civic journalism – allowing for local publics to hold the institutions of power to account themselves. Crucial for Hind, as with those behind the Media Fund, is the real possibility of opening up journalism to democratic processes; publications should listen to (and perhaps be required to act upon) their audiences preferences in terms of topics covered and the general direction of travel. I believe Hind is developing this line of thought with Tom Mills in a forthcoming pamphlet/book chapter for openDemocracy. But we don’t necessarily need to only expand the BBC itself to achieve a healthy media milieu. We should expand its principle (of information as a public service) by facilitating a healthy plurality of independent news media organisations and voices.
If there did exist a public pot for journalism, what principles and professional standards should guide it? The Leveson inquiry and manifesto for media reform would be good places to start. As in France, there would be an emphasis on funding a plurality of agents and new, relevant potential voices would be actively sought out and worked with. Funding could be allocated via a pitching process on behalf of news organisations and journalists (Hind, 2010) and continued support could be guaranteed by sticking to strict ethical guidelines, with possible withdrawals of funds for repeat offenders and possible bonuses for outstanding practices. This governance would need to be carried out by an independent and thoroughly transparent body with a democratically elected board recruited from, at a sketch, the public, industry, government and the NUJ. Hind’s ‘public commissioning system’ (2010, p. 158) is a promising proposal in this direction and such an organisation could work closely with the fund to ensure democratic values are front and centre at every stage.
Harnessing the digital commonwealth in order to create an actual common wealth that can, in turn, fund a common media.
How do we build the fund?
If the universal platforms are accelerating the decline in journalism’s material base, then they should be used to ground the new funding model. This is where Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton’s Digital Britain idea is useful, particularly when combined with other radical economic policies. The authors make the case for the public ownership of data in order to improve services and increase healthy competition, but they also flirt with the possibility of a revenue stream born out of selling access to (some of this data) to companies, including the universal platforms themselves (p. 29). This draws partly on the idea of a data fund that we at Autonomy have recently proposed (Srnicek 2018, see also Morozov 2015). As the report notes, the security and governance of this data is paramount and the money accrued would have to be ring-fenced from the Treasury (as all good social wealth fund models stipulate). The idea of a media trust fund has been floated by the president of the US-based Free Press Craig Aaron, suggesting, in a line of argument similar to mine here, a tax on advertising as a possible source of revenue (2011). This argument has also been made more recently by Pickard, specifically regarding platform regulation. In the UK, Tom Mills and Dan Hind have echoed the idea of such a levy.
Build a public, possibly devolved, set of data banks and then grow a media fund that can plug directly into an increasingly pluralised media landscape, thereby harnessing the digital commonwealth in order to create an actual common wealth that can fund a common media. With a platform-funded fund, we would be able to engage progressively both with the longstanding anti-democratic problems of media conglomerate monopolies on the one hand, and universal digital platform monopolies on the other.
Not only might this re-open the possibility for decent, local journalism (where there is a demand for it), but just imagine what Novara, New Socialist or Real Media could do with even a fractional slice of this pie? How many people could they reach, in print and/or on online, if they had full-time, paid admin and comms staff, as well as journalists across the country embedded in regions and cities? The already existing, independent Media Fund coordinates funds to these outlets, but it currently relies primarily on donations from the public. A plural media, guided by strict best practice frameworks, deserves a much larger pot of money, which it is going to need if it is to function at a large enough scale. Channelling substantial resources into the Media Fund from a dedicated pot might just be the way to come out of our critical conjuncture and unleash the next phase of journalism in this country.
Are the universal platforms creating the conditions for socialism?
To paraphrase Moishe Postone (1993), capitalism is both an enriching and impoverishing historical process, or ‘directional dynamic’. The ‘paradox of plenty’ that Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton identify (p. 5, but also in the excellent ‘Managing Automation’ paper, 2017) sums up this condition well. Our technical capacity is profound and our ability to produce goods and services is extraordinary; there exists more wealth than ever. Paradoxically though, remarkable levels of scarcity abound – in the UK, for example, we have much (in and out of work) poverty and over four million children live below the poverty line (CPAG 2017). Abundance is being fettered, captured and prevented from common use. How can we begin to overturn this paradox?
There is an argument to be made concerning the tension between the universal and the particular that the platform economy brings to the fore. As the report demonstrates, the platforms aim to be universal, expanding until there is no outside; all interactions between actors should take place within the bounds, and via the mediations, of the platform. If these companies, particularly those that wish to capture the social, can achieve this social universality (or something near it), then there is a strong ethical and practical argument in favour of dissolving the ownership and treating these platforms as we do roads, public spaces, clean water or simply as basic extensions of social life; they could be seen as necessary, interpersonal and multi-functional resources that enrich an advanced, connected and powerful public sphere. In this scenario, which is made more and more possible by the development of ever more advanced data analysis and gathering methods, would it make any sense for a tiny elite to profit from, and wield significant power through, what would have become more or less a part of the modern human condition? A case could be made that this fundamentality (or natural monopoly) is already in place: we require social networks (Facebook) for access to social life and to job opportunities, and require search engines (Google) for access to information, for example. When the tension between a particular set of interests/ownership and a quasi-universal social utility (constructed out of common data sets) reaches a certain level, commoning the basic platforms (or rather ‘utilities’) becomes very easy to ethically justify.
On a more technical note, the prospect of harnessing the digital economy for more egalitarian ends is something to be explored further. The immense power of platform technology and the data sets commanded has potential beyond the capture of rents, the surveillance of populations and the targeting of advertising; that is, beyond the imperatives of capital. As the IPPR paper outlines, platform models have various benefits, chief among them being the ability to:
– Reduce the costs of actors involved (both the service providers and the service users)
– Collect, organise and evaluate information efficiently.
– Facilitate fast-paced and targeted communications.
– Allow for democratic participation without significant resources and time commitments.
There is no reason why all of these features can’t be part of a technologically-advanced economy that revolves not around extraction-for-profit but the facilitation of social use, not around the commodification of everything, but the proliferation of collaboration and development. Indeed, as Frederic Jameson has argued regarding Wal-Mart’s vast logistical operations, these technologies can form the necessarily complex but efficient ground for a different kind of society altogether. Bolstered by data sets and APIs (partially) opened up for public use (p. 27-8), who knows what capacities and possibilities can be actualised in this regard? Concerning the potential of the digital economy then, we haven’t seen anything yet.
Toward a ‘Platform Cybersyn’?
To follow this line of thinking further and more broadly, we can engage with the idea that ‘another modernity is possible’ (Gilbert and Fisher 2014). That is to say, within our historical moment of rentier capitalism (Standing, 2017), there exists the possibility of something fundamentally different, an alternative path for modernity to take (Dyer-Witheford, 2013).
Such paths have been attempted before, resulting in differently-composed failures. Early Soviet Russia, with its multiple fantasies of an efficient, machinic society or of space exploration, was ultimately too tied to Taylorism and Fordism as a fundamental organising principle (Stites 1989); day to day factory production – with incentives and coercions to work ever harder – felt too similar to labour under capitalism to be truly liberating.
Explicitly orienting itself as wholly different to the Soviet system of top-down management, the Allende government in Chile in the early 1970s attempted to implement its own, distinctly Chilean, alternative modernity (Medina, 2011). Drafting in cybernetics expert Stafford Beer, the newly elected socialists wanted to fuse democratic, egalitarian ideals with a technologically advanced system of economic planning. Project Cybersyn was made up of four components: ‘Cybernet’ (a telex communications network), ‘Cyberstride’ (statistical software to gather data), ‘CHECO’ (an economic modelling simulator) and a Star Trek-style operations room where the components would converge and could be governed. Cybersyn would sadly never be able to be fully put into practice, being shut down by the incoming, neoliberal-backed Pinochet government after the brutal coup of 1973.
The Cybersyn moment still has many lessons to teach us in 2018 (both positive and negative). Given the latent potential of today’s digital economy, and walking in the footsteps of Cybersyn’s utopianism, we can ask some initial questions:
– Broadly speaking, how can the regulation of the platform economy (as Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton outline) intersect with the drive to embed ideals such as democracy, equality and environmental sanity into market regulation?
– What does a public, digital infrastructure look like?
– How can environmental (emissions targets) parameters be wired into economic planning for the future so as to avoid catastrophe?
– How can data sets and communications platforms potentially be used to smoothly coordinate large scale social restructurings? E.g. the redistribution of work from the overworked to the underworked (within and between industries?)
– Can a public platform be useful in the distribution and governance of components of a UBS programme (e.g. food) and/or basic income provisions?
Autonomy and its affiliates hope to explore questions like these in the coming months.
Will Stronge is Co-Director of Autonomy. He can be found on Twitter @w_stronge
by Wendy Liu
This report marks an important advance within the field of platform studies, indicating that the policy world is taking the challenges posed by digital technology companies seriously. By stressing the dangers of a business-as-usual approach – where the technology giants are lightly regulated and made to pay taxes, but allowed to continue amassing social and economic dominance – the report offers a welcome counterweight to the dominant discourse around technology companies. The monopolistic tendencies and undemocratic structures of these companies are rightly recognised as against the public interest, indicating that a new model of developing technology is needed – one driven by a focus on public good over private profit.
The core strength of the report lies in describing how these platforms work: identifying key commonalities, but also highlighting crucial differences between particular platforms or companies that will necessitate different policy responses. It also recognises the core injustice with these platforms: their owners have captured so much wealth because they could have, not necessarily because they should have, and perhaps if governments had been more proactive at responding they wouldn’t have.
Where the report falters, however, is being too narrow in its scope, and too modest in its vision.
Foreclosing the Future
The crux of the report’s argument is that these platforms were founded on a modern-day version of enclosing of the commons, with data being the key asset from which the public is increasingly being dispossessed. While this is a fair characterisation, an overly myopic focus on data can distract from the bigger picture. In the battle over digital platforms, there’s more at stake than just data; this is a battle over technological development more broadly, and who gets to control and deploy that. In short, it’s over the future. The enclosure of the data commons that these corporate behemoths represent is also an enclosure – or perhaps foreclosure – of the future.
Seen in that light, it’s clear that challenging the power of the today’s platforms is merely a means to an end, a way to reclaim our future. As the report acknowledges, we are at a crossroads – the challenges at hand require bold responses, and soon. Unfortunately, the report’s ambitions are constrained to fairly staid, technocratic solutions: requiring platforms to open up their data under certain conditions; regulating them as utilities; and funding more public alternatives, especially local ones.
Now, these policies have some potential to be transitional measures, in the sense of reducing the size and scope (and ultimately power) of these platforms. Regulation could prevent them from expanding vertically or horizontally, or could force them to spin off some of their services. Similarly, promoting local alternatives could chip away at their market share, especially if there is coordination with other localities who are inspired to mimic these models.
Still, even the sum of these proposals feels anemic and piecemeal. What this report lacks is a stronger, more radical, forward vision to tie them all together and sketch out what the future should look like. Which is understandable – we are in uncharted territory here, and there aren’t really historical policy examples that can be easily recycled. Plus, the format of the report lends itself more to concrete policy proposals than to utopian visions. Nevertheless, when it comes to thinking through a challenge this major, it’s helpful to have a guiding light to remind us of the big picture and illuminate what we’re actually aiming for.
That should mean going beyond trying to craft a slightly more ethical Silicon Valley, or reining in the existing technology giants in order to gradually diminish their power. Those are worthy goals, but there is an opportunity to make a more lasting impact: to fundamentally remake the economic structures that allowed these private technology platforms to become so dominant in the first place. This can only be done by tackling the roots of the problem – by changing the funding models and intellectual property regimes that continues to allow these platforms to capture so much wealth. The overarching goal, then, should be to dismantle these structures; to abolish, to overcome.
Information wants to be free?
Of course, this is not a small undertaking, and it’s certainly not one that’s conducive to formulating concrete policies in our current political environment. What should embolden us, and provide us with ballast, is the fact that the technologies themselves do actually point toward a way out. The nature of the technology that underpins these platforms makes for a fundamentally different landscape (in terms of possible political solutions). The free software movement spoke to those possibilities: in those heady early days of the development of information technologies, free software advocates saw the potential of these technologies in creating abundance, which could allow us to transcend property rights as we knew them.
Unfortunately, that movement never really took off; it was co-opted by corporate forces and watered down to become the “open source movement”, which could happily coexist with corporate dominance. The outcome is what we see today: a system of intellectual property controls and conventions that permits opportunistic corporations to become gatekeepers to information, dictating its terms of access and suppressing its liberating tendencies in order to extract rent.
Challenging our current situation would require revisiting intellectual property law as it applies to information, with the aim of decommodifying it, along similar lines as the free software movement. The early pioneers of that movement may have lacked the political leverage necessary to see that process through, but we would be remiss to ignore the movement’s profound critique of applying intellectual property rights to information. Expanding on that critique, and integrating it into a larger political programme, is the best way to challenge the ideological bedrock of the technology giants while formulating a vision to reshape these platforms for the collective good.
The other lesson we can learn from the free software movement comes from its failure to move “up the stack”. As software itself became more and more of a commodity, and one that was frequently available free of charge, technology companies had to find more innovative business models. Few of the profitable companies built on the Internet today are merely selling software; instead, they’re selling services built on top of software, some of which they’re able to use for free thanks to the spread of the open source movement. Neither the open source movement nor its more radical parent successfully anticipated the degree to which corporate profits would move up the stack as software became free to use – once software was no longer the main site of contestation, the battle shifted to other types of information, and that battle was decisively won by corporations. Corporate capture of that information turned out to be extremely lucrative, and we are only now starting to deal with the consequences.
So the free software movement is instructive on two levels. On one level, it’s part of the story of these platforms’ rapid growth: the proliferation of freely-usable software enabled them to innovate quickly, and they were able to move up the stack and build moats around data, gateways, and branding in a way that the movement couldn’t respond to quickly enough. On another level, though, the free software movement offers a glimpse of a different world – a way to build technology outside the current model where its development is directed for the purpose of private gain.
As democratic opposition to the technology giants continues to build, we’ll need to incubate an alternative, ideally one taking full advantage of the decommodifying potential of the technologies they rely on. That means pushing for more than just fairer taxation, which amounts to little more than attempting to share in these platforms’ wealth despite the extent to which their gains are ill-gotten, founded on indirect rent extraction through global value chains or just by flat-out pushing down the value of labour. Instead, we should move in the opposite direction: toward decommodification. Under the current relations of production, information is continually being commodified to ensure returns to capital at the expense of the common good. Perhaps it’s time to break free of these fetters, bit by bit.
One step at at a time
So much for the larger vision. There are, of course, lots of unanswered questions lurking in the details. Moving forward, it will become necessary to evaluate individual platforms on a case-by-case basis, by assessing whether the service needs to exist at all, and whether it makes sense to foster local alternatives. After all, the success of any given platform comes from combining a particular kind of technology with a specific business model in a certain economic and social environment that allows it to scale up, and these factors are different for each platform. It’s worth asking whether each business model is worth executing at scale in the first place, or whether equivalent services can be provided in ways that provide more public value.
It’s also important to consider the interface between these platforms and other companies, or even whole industries: Amazon now has near-monopsony power over book publishing; Facebook’s news feed means it now has worrying control over the field of online journalism (see Will’s essay above). There’s also the way commodity logic has seeped into these platforms, resulting in entirely new subfields within the world of advertising – the rapid ascent of influencer marketing on visual-heavy platforms like Instagram and YouTube; the rise of native advertising; a dizzying array of methods for targeting and retargeting consumers based on their activity on the web. Repurposing these platforms for the public good may entail exorcising their commercial motives, which would require thinking through the economic impacts this would have on the advertising industry, as well as the cultural and social impacts on consumer behaviour.
Building power from below
Answering these questions will require the perspectives – and the cooperation – of the people who actually build and maintain the platforms we are discussing. One of the main weaknesses of the report is its failure to address this angle: there is no mention of the tech workers who keep these platforms running and who are collectively responsible for these platforms’ continued dominance. Certainly, there is no mention of the possibility that these workers could be aligned with the vision of the report, and could have some collective role to play in getting there.
On the one hand, this is understandable – the tech industry has, historically, been largely allergic to the concept of organised labour. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine successfully curbing the powers of these corporate giants without support from below. These companies are powerful enough that it’ll be difficult for any individual nation-state to meaningfully contend – especially one that will soon be leaving the only supranational organisation that has proven capable of exacting concessions from these companies (even if they are minor and along broadly neoliberal lines). Management won’t simply roll over as soon as a government starts playing hardball; they’re structurally incentivised to come up with workarounds to ensure their company survives. Relying on regulatory methods alone is a fragile approach.
So what’s left? Well, labour. The report’s assertion of data as these platforms’ most valuable resource diverts attention away from the fact that data is only valuable insofar as it’s captured, stored, processed, and used, a process which currently requires human labour. The necessary complement to having data is having employees who are able to do something with that data, and so another important resource at these companies is their workforce: those who have the technical and institutional knowledge necessary to develop and extend these systems. Cultivating this workforce is necessary for any company to extract profit from the data they’ve collected through their platform.
This means that at least some of these workers – notably, the more senior ones, with in-demand skill sets – have high leverage. Not only are they operating within a tight labour market that makes them hard to replace, they also tend to be situated close to the point of production and so have the possibility of disrupting it. This would be a dream for any industry with a more militant labour history; alas, for the most part, the tech sector has operated under the illusion of a harmonious relationship between employees and management, with the possibility of class struggle largely sidelined.
This is starting to change. Contrary to the stereotype of highly-paid tech workers not caring about the world around them, we’ve recently seen a fairly unprecedented wave of tech worker mobilisation around ethical concerns, revolving around the complicity of the technology giants in US government policy. Some have also shown solidarity with attempts to unionise service workers at these companies, who – as cafeteria workers, or cleaners, or security guards – also contribute to these companies’ success but have largely been prevented from reaping the rewards.
These are only glimmers, but they points toward a future where workers in the tech sector collectively organise as workers, even if some of them are given relative autonomy and copious amounts of stock whereas those who are more ancillary to production are treated as disposable. If enough power is built this way, organised labour in the industry could hold management to account in a way that could even go beyond the aims of regulation.
It’s impossible to say, at the moment, whether building worker power will always result in them advocating for better ethical decisions. But the history of labour organising indicates that the process is transformative, and that giving workers democratic control is more structurally sound than perpetually relying on a top-down management structure. Building a more egalitarian economy will necessitate revisiting corporate governance structures and other policies in favour of worker-led companies – that is, supporting cooperatives. Such a transition should go hand-in-hand with a gradual switch to more sustainable funding models, challenging the existing venture capital-driven model so intimately associated with the worst excesses of Silicon Valley.
Tackling the platform giants will require more imaginative solutions than regulating them better and investing in equivalent public services. Such measures might be necessary, but they are not sufficient. Though this report is a step in the right direction, there is an entire horizon of more radical solutions beyond what’s proposed in it, and those who believe our economy needs to be fundamentally transformed should bear this in mind.
Ultimately, we should remember that the technologies on which these platforms are built are capable of so much more than merely facilitating the concentration of wealth of power. Unleashing their full potential requires reimagining the economic structures that have led to our present reality, where the direction of technological innovation is dictated by the whims of the executives at a few multinational corporations. To truly challenge their power, we’ll have to break the tech giants’ monopoly over the very idea of innovation – the sort of innovation we need now involves getting us closer to a world where they no longer exist.
Wendy Liu is studying economics at LSE, is economics editor for New Socialist and part of Notes From Below. She can be found on Twitter @dellsystem
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