The emerging power of platforms

The digital economy introduced new players in the form of Internet intermediaries, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and YouTube. These platforms have a key role to play in driving social interaction, matching supply and demand, and fostering innovation and collaboration in the new sharing economy. They also increasingly shape our online experience. For example, Twitter and Facebook may be the gateway through which we access news websites, based on what people in our networks are reading and sharing. The address bar (which is used to navigate across the web) has now become a default search engine, showing how intrinsic Google (or its alternatives) search has become to the way in which we access the rest of the web. This gives the platform immense power, it is a common joke that no matter how many results a search engine may display, most users do not venture past the first page.

Wired magazine published an article ‘The Web is Dead, Long Live the Internet’, which noted the shift from “the wide-open Web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display”. This was written 6 years ago, and while the web isn’t dead just yet, platforms do play a large part in driving web traffic. Take Facebook, for example. Beyond its role as a social network, Facebook is increasingly becoming a curator of news. Vox, a popular media website was found to have received 40 percent of its traffic from Facebook. With the launch of Facebook’s Instant Articles in 2015, news stories are now hosted directly on the site, users no longer have to step outside this closed ecosystem. Significant news publishers like the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC News and the Guardian have signed up to the initiative. Apple has a similar initiative, Apple News, which hosts full stories from publishers (who share some of the ad revenue with Apple) like The New York Times, ESPN, WIRED and Buzzfeed within an Apple-controlled environment.

noun_52120_ccThe sheer amount of influence that platforms have over people’s online experience has not been viewed without controversy. Back in 2014, Facebook revealed that they had manipulated the news feeds of half a million randomly selected users as part of a psychological study. This experiment changed the number of positive and negative posts they were shown, to examine how social media could impact the emotions of users. This kind of tinkering with users’ emotions without express permission (though they argued that users give blanket consent to company research as a condition of using the service)  is an illustration of platform excess. The ease with which such manipulation is possible is cause for concern.

A recent storm over Facebook’s ‘trending topics’ section saw the company accused of editorial bias against conservative views in the United States. This came soon after a news report of an internal company poll where employees asked whether they had a responsibility to impede Donald’s Trump presidential campaign. While there is no proof of Facebook staff operating under a calculated bias against conservatives, it is entirely possible unconscious bias may seep in from a largely liberal workforce. Furthermore, Facebook’s denial of any bias as topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, before being finalised by human editors, misses the point as algorithms are not neutral. Rather, they are based on parameters which value likes, comments and shares; it is virality that is privileged over content with millions of users’ biases in play.

It is also not inconceivable that Facebook could use its platform to promote certain views to serve its own interests. In fact, it’s already happened. In India, during the public consultation on differential pricing, Facebook ran a campaign on the site urging users to “Save Free Basics” and “support digital equality”, allowing them to send a one-click template response to the regulator. They also notified users about their friends who had supported the campaign. The abuse of their power as a platform, or “platform abuse”, carried out to influence a public consultation for its own agenda could have far-reaching consequences. While these platforms are private companies and have the right to suppress or promote any content that they choose to, companies like Facebook are becoming the default way in which people access information. By virtue of the power that they hold over what information users access, platform neutrality needs to be articulated and upheld.

Facebook is hardly the only company to leverage its significantly large user base to influence policy. Uber, a ride-hailing app, has on multiple occasions mobilised their user base to put pressure on local government authorities. In New York City, when a cap on livery vehicles was proposed, Uber launched a campaign on their app, prompting users to sign a petition opposing the new rules. Similar efforts in other cities like Portland showed that Uber usually got their way. This “Uber-isation of activism” has been deployed in India cities as well, in Mumbai when the City Taxi Scheme 2015 was proposed, which sought to introduce a cap on the number of vehicles, Uber launched an online petition asking users to protest the “regressive” rules which received almost 72,000 signatures.

Implications for policy

While online platforms are immensely useful in providing on-demand services from banking to food delivery, offer unprecedented opportunities for social interaction as well as collaboration, the monopolistic control that a few (mostly US-based) corporations have over the digital economy is a cause for concern. Platform governance is a nascent subject in policy circles, but it is increasingly seen as an important regulatory issue. The Italian parliament drafted a Declaration on Internet Rights, which has a section on the rights and safeguards of people on platforms. The provisions include transparency, non-discrimination with regard to accessing the platform, user control over data and appropriate interoperability with other platforms (for essential services).

The French Digital Council published a report on platform neutrality which views platform neutrality from two angles: “the traditional defensive angle designed to protect liberties, including freedom of expression, free trade, free access to data and content and free competition; or the offensive angle aimed at developing user power in the long term, promoting economic and social progress, creating the right conditions for a multitude of user types and encouraging innovation.” Recognising the power of dominant platforms, the report provides recommendations which include the need to make better use of existing laws in relation to digital platforms (with an emphasis on establishing guidelines on transparency in the way services operate), respect users’ rights and control over their data, as well as maintain an open digital environment in order to foster diversity and allow alternatives to emerge.

Searching for neutrality: The case of Google

noun_199704_ccIn 2015, the European Commission formally charged Google with promoting its own price comparison services in search results, disadvantaging its competitors. The antitrust challenge against Google began with Foundem, a price comparison and vertical search engine which was penalised by Google’s algorithm in 2006 such that it effectively disappeared from search results, until three years later when Google manually whitelisted the company. The founders, a British couple, filed the first anitrust complaint against Google in 2009. Google had said that it had de-indexed the company from search results due to much of its content being copied from other sites, which led to an automatic downgrading. However this is a characteristic of all vertical search sites (including Google’s own).

This kind of penalisation can be crippling for smaller companies, especially considering Google’s monopoly over Internet search. Other companies followed suit in filing complaints in relation to Google’s competition practices, including Microsoft, Trip Advisor and News Corp. The European Commission is expected to levy a record-breaking fine of 3 billion euros for monopoly abuse in relation to the distortion of search results to favour the Google Shopping service, and has launched an investigation into monopoly abuse related to Google’s Android software.