Big tech companies are seeing unbridled growth, larger now than the largest governments. While technology outpaces regulation, there’s a strong need to establish ‘techlash’, or policy against absolute power in tech, to protect the public good
In the exciting interplay of technology, culture, design and policy, making sense of media has emerged as a great challenge that poses pertinent questions regarding human society and human life.
The story of evolution of communication is the story of content. Modern-day media affords ample opportunities to play with content—create, curate, moderate, fine-tune, customise, categorise, organise, annotate, and disseminate across multiple formats, channels and media.
People without meeting others discover, argue, watch, read, post, share, experience, learn, encourage, sanction or troll, in the process creating a semblance of modern-day human life, which may not qualify as real, and yet is so real.
The content people consume could be decided by a journalistic call or an incentive or advertising monies or an individual. What is pertinent to note is that all of this content is increasingly played out within privately owned infrastructures. Platforms—the more respected buzzword for these privately owned infrastructures—are manifested across the businesses of the most iconic companies of the day.
Domain-specific sectoral platforms—Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, Swiggy, Spotify—connect producers and consumers and are largely transaction-based profit entities. The other kind typically owned by the big-tech—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft —are the all-encompassing ecosystems that capture, process, store, circulate, and sell data.
Almost all of Google’s revenues come through advertising through two of its products: Google search engine and YouTube. Google, however, has a play with the over-200-product ecosystem—Maps, Gmail, Chrome, Android, and more—eight of which aggregate more than a billion consumers. This ubiquitous ecosystem gives Google multiple hooks through which to engage the consumers and create insights out of hundreds of data points. No wonder Google is a trillion-dollar giant.
While all of them ostensibly sport different businesses (search, social media, e-commerce, and more), at the back-end, they are all powered by similar technological prowess. To be fair, connected platforms serve enormous good—personalised services, economic exchange, information transfer, making predictions, innovation and economic growth.
With great success comes great responsibility. The costs are also not difficult to see. The social costs manifest around such areas as information authenticity, polarisation and toxic digital atmosphere. The economic costs are mostly manifest in market distortion and monopoly power. The costs to democracy manifest in threatening the electoral process itself, besides others.
As technology is almost always outpacing regulation, the all-important issue of governance is left as a victim leading to some sort of “techlash”.
The dominant supremacy of platforms needs to be understood in the context of the power they wield owing to their motivations (profit-first), their scale (larger than the largest of governments and countries), and network effects (multiplier effect like the hydra-headed dragon). This has enabled them to disrupt markets, circumvent institutions, transform societies and influence democratic processes.
With lines blurring between real and virtual life, governance needs to address definitions as platform practices and processes come into question. ‘Friends’, ‘Share’, ‘Like’, ‘Private’, ‘Speech’, ‘Privacy’, ‘Trusted’, ‘Popular’, ‘Transparency’, and ‘Accountability’ need to be defined globally and simply—not in ‘as-it-suits-us-when-it-suits-us’ mode by private platform ecosystems.
Most platforms resemble shopping malls than town squares—public apparently but finally managed in line with private interests. They end up being unbridled horses where certifications, regulations and censorships are all in suspended motion. Governance requires to bring control back to where it belong, to those who supply the attention, the monies, the content and the trust. These are individuals, markets, government and civil society.
Real-life has institutions, and while not perfect, they have stood the test of time to, more often than not, deliver. These consist of the executive, the judiciary, the polity, the civil society.
Platforms need to incorporate public values including privacy, probity, security, truth, fairness, accountability, democratic control, and deliver public good, and not the other way round.
Post-war industrial economy formulated rules to govern financial markets, monetary policy, capital flow, economic development and conflict prevention. An interdisciplinary research agenda for platform governance consisting of rules to regulate data, competition and content is perhaps the need of the hour, which may consist of policy coordination, the scale of appropriate response and degree of regulatory risk.
The global governance gap of the 21st century may then hopefully get bridged.
The writer is an Executive-in-Residence at the Indian School of Business (ISB) besides being a global CEO coach