A Common Platform: Reimagining Data and Platforms

This research is published in collaboration with the following organisations:
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A Common Platform: Reimagining Data and Platforms

Executive Summary

On Tuesday October 20th 2020, the US Department of Justice filed an antitrust action against Google, the first step in what might be one of the biggest anti-monopoly cases of this century. With Google controlling more than an 87% share of the U.S. search market and its parent company, Alphabet, now one of the largest and most valuable companies in history, the move is likely long-overdue. Yet Google/Alphabet is not alone. Just weeks later, the European Commission formally accused Amazon of breaking EU antitrust rules by distorting competition in online retail markets.

At this point, it is relatively uncontroversial to point out that “Big Tech” giants like Google and Amazon increasingly dominate our economies and wield tremendous influence over our culture, social interactions, and political systems. For instance, the “Big Five” – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google – represent more than 20% of the market cap of the S&P 500 and companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Paypal are all worth tens of billions of dollars. Moreover, as the value of these tech giants has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, the wealth of their major shareholders have risen to scarcely believable levels. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for instance, has seen his personal fortune rise by more than $73 billion since the start of the crisis to a record of around $200 billion.

The unprecedented rise of many of these companies is linked to the emergence and proliferation of digital platforms over the past several years. The platform as a business model – in which the product or business is focussed on facilitating interactions between two or more distinct but interdependent sets of users – is not new. What has enabled today’s platform giants to accumulate such extraordinary wealth and power is a combination of the effects of digital connection and anti-competitive action. Boosted by seemingly limitless flows of venture capital (VC), these platforms corporations are increasingly acquiring a dominant position across more and more parts of our economy, from search to online retail and from social networks to mobility services, and using their power to undermine regulations, workers’ rights, and democratic processes. Moreover, this power is consolidated and extended by a key feature of the platform economy: the exponential collection, analysis, and monetisation of data generated by platform users and collected by the platform companies.

This has led to a situation in which a small group of large platform companies – sitting at the heart of the transactions and engagements of the digital, and increasingly, the physical economy – have become the robber barons and rentier giants of our age. Their main focus has become the collection of rent while fending off potential competitors and swatting away regulations and public policies aimed at curtailing their power. Not coincidentally, they are also being linked to numerous negative social, economic, and political outcomes, both independently and in conjunction with collection and use of data.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Increasing economic inequality and the concentration of economic power, which are inevitable outgrowths of the dominant platforms’ rentier monopoly position.
  • The steady erosion of social and labour protections and the deployment of new, pernicious forms of social and workplace control.
  • The deepening of “surveillance capitalism,” in which all aspects of life and society are mined for data which is not only bought and sold, but increasingly used to modify and direct human behavior.
  • The rise of algorithmic management (and bias), which is hardwiring discriminatory, unfair, and racist outcomes into core features of our economic system.
  • The undermining of democratic and civil norms through the proliferation of forms of misinformation and manipulation.
  • The use of tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage (e.g. shopping for favourable regulatory environments) by platform companies to boost profits.
  • Negative environmental impacts, with the digital sphere intimately linked to material landscapes and natural systems.

Yet, if monopoly power in the hands of giant for-profit corporations is producing a series of stark economic and social challenges, there remains extraordinary potential in platforms. As an infrastructure for connecting people to goods and services, platforms can and do provide an enormously useful function and, as Covid-19 has proved, they are indispensable to how we live, work, and play. Moreover, given their collaborative and networked nature, platforms also have great potential to be organised through multi-stakeholder models of governance and ownership, giving suppliers and users of the platform genuine voice and control.

The challenge is to liberate the democratic and enlivening potential of the platform from the logics of concentrated corporate ownership and profit maximisation. Crucially, while platforms have encouraged a sense of technological inevitability, the way that our digital economy is run is neither fixed nor certain. Platforms are legal as much as digital institutions; we can recode both and change how they operate and in whose interests. We can disperse and democratise economic coordination rights currently monopolised by the platforms, ensuring private power is not beyond democratic regulation. Central to this must be a new architecture of ownership and control.

This report outlines the current political economy of platforms and data in the US and UK, as well as key policies, regulations, and legislation in the areas of antitrust and monopoly power, workers’ rights and protections, online speech, data privacy and control, and financial technology (fintech), among others. It then presents five foundational principles that we believe should guide a transformative agenda related to platforms and data. These are:

[.num-list][.num-list-num]1[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Privacy and anti-surveillance: Decisions on whether to collect data, what data to collect, and how data can be used should not be left in the hands of private corporations or the state as presently constituted. Rather, new democratic and multi-stakeholder organizations and approaches are needed.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]2[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]From enclosure to the commons: Platforms and data should be reconceptualized as public utilities and assets with new public and commons forms of ownership and governance.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]3[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Global multi-stakeholder governance: Any proposals to democratize the ownership and control of platforms and data must take global dynamics into account and establish processes and approaches by which people around the world (and not just in the US and the UK) can meaningfully participate.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]4[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Reducing corporate concentration and power: Challenging and reducing the monopoly power of Big Tech and platform companies is central, but antitrust strategies should be connected to deeper structural changes in the ownership and control of platforms and Big Tech companies.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]5[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Increasing public funding: In addition to other government actions to reduce corporate power and increase competition (such as antitrust and regulatory strategies), public funding should be expanded and redirected to support the development of multistakeholder, publicly owned platforms, and other alternatives.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

Building on these principles and the existing political economic landscape, this report concludes by offering a menu of policies and solutions that we feel can meet the scale and dynamic of the crises posed by today’s data and platform regimes. These include:

  • Democratic public ownership of major platforms: In order to sufficiently resolve the natural monopoly and other problems brought on by the dominant platform firms, the US should consider bringing these digital public utilities into democratic public ownership (perhaps in conjunction with its broader antitrust strategy). In the UK, platforms – or particular subsidiaries of platforms – should be regulated as a utility service where they operate under monopoly conditions.
  • Central bank digital currency and a postal banking system: The US in particular should get ahead of private platform capitalists and fintech companies by establishing a democratically accountable digital payments infrastructure, including a central bank digital currency and postal banking system as the digital and physical architectures, respectively.
  • A 21st century “New Deal” for workers and unions: A new set of labour rights should be introduced to ensure work organised through platform intermediaries is secure and decent. Furthermore, the ability of workers to organise collectively should be enhanced.
  • A new multi-stakeholder agency to set the standards and principles for data collection and use: In the US and the UK, a new multi-stakeholder agency or organisation should determine when and how data can be collected, with workers and communities having new rights to collectively determine how data collecting technologies are introduced, including a final say on the introduction and use of surveillance and monitoring technologies in the workplace.
  • A network of “data trusts” to provide citizens with access and democratic control over data that can improve their lives: A series of sectoral and place-based data trusts should be established. These autonomous legal bodies would act as custodians and stewards of a specific data set, making sure that the data is shared safely and democratically. Such data trusts could, for instance, be designed to pool transport data or help improve the bargaining power of workers by giving them access to specific data on terms and conditions in their sector.
  • Public Platform Accelerator (PPA), National Lab for Community Data (NLCD), and Public Digital Cooperatives (PDCs): The US and UK should direct public funding into the development of data and platforms (and the ecosystem around them) that are decentralized and democratically owned via a variety of new public RD&P (Research, Development, & Production) institutions and approaches.
  • National Investment Bank: the US and UK should close the financing gap for platform co-ops and other democratic alternatives via broader transformations of public finance, such as the establishment of a network of public banks led at the national level by a National Investment Bank.
  • Digital Community Wealth Building: Towns, cities, and regions should be in the vanguard of charting a new digital future. In conjunction with, or in addition to, many of the proposals suggested above (including data codetermination, data trusts, and the PPA, NCLD, and PDC), local digital Community Wealth Building strategies should be at the forefront of how we reimagine how data is generated and used and how digital platforms and infrastructures are developed and owned – with the overarching goal of seeking to retain and grow value in place.
Full Text
A Common Platform: Reimagining Data and Platforms