Tackling the platforms: on IPPR's Digital Commonwealth report

Top-down regulation, bottom-up resistance, or some combination of the two? A response to IPPR's new report on technology platforms

The Institute of Progressive Policy Research (IPPR) recently launched a report on technology platforms: The Digital Commonwealth: From private enclosure to collective benefit, authored by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton.

This response to the IPPR paper was commissioned by Autonomy, an independent think tank focused on the future of work. The other response, written by Autonomy co-director Will Stronge, highlights the effects that these platforms have had on journalism. This response, originally titled “Beyond Policy”, sketches out the larger vision of what the left could be aiming for, and stresses the labour struggles that will be necessary to get there.

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 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 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 continue 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 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 important to ask 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. 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 excising 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.

Reclaiming innovation

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 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 (@dellsystem)

Wendy Liu is the author of Abolish Silicon Valley.