Rise of the platform society: why public values matter even more in a techno-commercial world

This new book identifies a set of values and principles for not just tech giants, but entrepreneurs, governments, and civil society as well.

6th Sep 2019
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The growing number of reports of security breaches, anti-trust fines, fake news, violation of user privacy, and challenges to labour rights collectively reflect that all is not well in a world connected by digital platforms.


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It is not just company versus country, but a clash of ideologies and value systems that are at play here, according to The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World, co-authored by Jose van Dijck, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal. Solutions have to come from collaboration between market, government, and civil society organisations so that public values and the common good are at centre stage.


Such values include privacy, accuracy, safety, security, fairness, citizen control, transparency, accessibility, affordability, inclusiveness, democratic control, responsibility, accountability, and good governance.


The authors trace how these issues play out in four key sectors: news, urban transport, health, and education. The book spans 225 pages, including 28 pages of references and 20 pages of notes.


Jose van Dijck is a professor at Utrecht University, and author of The Culture of Connectivity. A Critical History of Social Media. Thomas Poell is a senior lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Social Media. Martijn de Waal is a professor at the Play and Civic Media research group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.


Here are my key takeaways from this wide-ranging book. See also my reviews of the related publications A Human's Guide to Machine Intelligence; Machine, Platform, Crowd; The AI Advantage; Human + Machine; Life 3.0; The Four; Peers, Inc; and Do Good.


The book focusses on large platform players like “The Big Five” (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft), as well as sector-specific platforms like Uber, 23andMe, PatientsLikeMe, and Coursera. The discussion is largely from the perspective of how Europe is responding to the US-based platform players, and thus, opens the door to analysis on what is at stake for other countries like India, and how they can respond.


The global rise of platforms


The sharing economy and gig economy are other terms describing the platform movement. While platforms open up new business models, efficient services, significant consumer benefits, and profits for creators and entrepreneurs, they also raise issues of skewed concentration of wealth, loss of some public benefits, and inadequate redress of user concerns.


“Platforms are neither neutral nor value-free constructs; they come with specific norms and values inscribed in their architectures,” the authors explain. They describe platforms as multi-sided connectors “geared towards the systematic collection, algorithmic processing, circulation, and monetisation of user data.”


Platforms operate through interfaces and user agreements, and many large infrastructural platform players have invested in other sectoral platforms as well. Platform dynamics involve selection activities like personalisation, reputation, trends, and moderation. Unfortunate side effects can be filter bubbles, inflated reviews, bot armies to gamify metrics, and a lack of clarity in defining community standards of fairness.


The Big Five “constellations” have become globally dominant and have considerable inter-sector influence; they almost function as utilities, having near-monopolistic power for some domains. They operate in a “grey legal area” and often raise issues of conflict of interest and a lack of fairness. Their algorithms are constantly changing and are regarded as trade secrets beyond public or auditory scrutiny.


For example, Facebook and Google together control over 60 percent of online advertising, the authors explain; their login identification services are used in many other services as well. Even new disruptors like Spotify and Netflix are dependent on their infrastructure (Google Cloud and AWS, respectively). Google has a 20 percent stake in Uber, while also having acquired Waze.


Facebook doesn’t call itself a media organisation, and Uber doesn’t call itself a taxi company. Airbnb claims it only provides service connectivity, but claims no liability or responsibility. These stances have become problematic in regions like Europe, the authors explain.


China also has its own large platform players, but in a different ecosystem of state capitalism, according to the authors. Europe is thus squeezed between the US and China models of platforms.


Public-private boundaries are becoming blurred as many of these US-based platforms ride on services and infrastructure paid for by the public, governments, and other companies around the world, such as highways, academic courses, and news articles. However, private gain by the platform players should also contribute to the common good and public value; the benefits should accrue to all participants and stakeholders, the authors argue.


The US systems are based on libertarian values with few obligations towards the state or public, but this conflicts with European views on public values, corporate obligations, and role of government, the authors point out.


News


The dominant platforms challenge notions of trust, comprehensive news coverage, content diversity, and journalistic independence. For example, Facebook’s problems with fake news and allegations of political manipulation show how it is struggling with editorial responsibility and journalistic competence.


Platformisation has led to the unbundling of news from news media and rebundling in new ways by content aggregators, the authors explain. This has spawned a range of new editorial decision-making tools such as Chartbeat, NewsWhip, Parse.ly, and CrowdTangle. They offer services like predictive discovery dashboards that operate in realtime.


But the datafication of news production and distribution rearranges gatekeeper roles of context and curation. There is a tension between datafication and journalistic autonomy due to the “techno-commercial strategies of platforms,” the authors caution.


Hybrid models are emerging in traditional news media, and native hosting of content with the platform players poses its own set of challenges as control of the audience-content-advertiser relationship is ceded to them. Most content producers are now reduced to mere “complementors” of large platforms, the authors caution.


The quantity and quality of news they produce are increasingly affected by platform algorithms. Emotionally-charged and entertaining news tends to do better, and many publishers have become “full-blown content factories” hoping to create viral effects.


Though social media platforms like Facebook argue that they are tech companies and not media companies, they play a central role in news feed selection. “Caught between accusations of filtering too much and too little, they become precisely what they claim not to be: arbiters of truth,” the authors explain.


They should take more responsibility for the power they wield. Fact-checking rules and publication guidelines should be opened up to democratic assessment rather than being secretive decisions, the authors urge.


Urban transport


Urban transport should support service quality, inclusion of all neighbourhoods and commuters, and labour rights, but these principles are challenged in Europe by platform players, the authors explain. Though Uber supports micro-entrepreneurs and provides more mobility and rating options, its practices like opaque competitive pricing and lack of adequate safety nets like healthcare provisions for drivers have drawn flak.


Uber could also do more to share its data with urban planners for better decision-making, the authors suggest. The aggregated data have not just economic value for the platform players but public value as well. In some markets, subway ridership has fallen due to Uber; this can pose a challenge to funding public transport, whereas Uber is subsidised by venture capital, caution the authors.


Alternatives like La’Zooz, People’s Ride, and TransUnion Car have emerged, but have not been able to scale. Sao Paolo is proposing a “mobility credit” scheme to ensure that underserved areas are covered. The authors also call for external reputation systems over and above the internal ratings in platforms; the internal ratings should also be transferable when users move to other platforms.


Health


While personalisation through wearables can offer health benefits to end users, there are also concerns raised about the accessibility of data to a wider range of public research initiatives. Health data gathered by platforms should be used not just for private gain but for the larger public good as well, the authors urge; this can help make services more affordable.


The large platforms players are increasingly controlling hardware, software, appstores, and health tools, the authors observe, pointing to Apple ResearchKit and Google Fit as examples. The platform 23andMe gathers users’ genetic samples and sends individual profiles, but also sells data to third party companies.


PatientsLikeMe creates online communities for member solidarity and personalised services, but also offers “research services” to other companies. Parkinson mPower collects and monitors patient signals in realtime, but does not disclose which other companies benefit from this collected data.


Automated, real-time collection of health data at scale can offer huge health benefits, but there should be more transparency in the data brokerage practices, the authors insist. Data should be made available for independent research as well. There also imbalances in the financial, technical and talent fronts between the platform players and public health organisations.


The authors identify a number of emerging developments addressing these gaps, such as the European Open Science Cloud, health review panels, data ethics committees, and frameworks for users’ rights to track health data.


Education


Education is about creating skilled workers but also knowledgeable citizens; it is about giving every child access to affordable learning. The authors track the achievements and challenges of models like AltSchool, MOOCs and Coursera, as well as the influence of the Big Five players in this space.


Technocratic solutions such as the use of data-driven instruments and personalised learning should not come at the cost of investment in teachers, or be seen as too intrusive. The focus should be not just on increasing student’s learning efficiency, but also giving them a comfortable space where they can learn, explore and make mistakes while they acquire skills over time. It is still too early to judge the long-term effects of platform-based learning solutions, the authors explain.


Alternative models that have been developed include edX, with open source code and courseware, and the Open Education Europe Project. Open data projects, however, are heavily dependent on permanent funding.


Responsibility and governance


The authors conclude by recommending shared responsibility and cooperation between tech firms, civil society, sectoral players, and government (international, national, local). Governments should lobby on behalf of citizens who are co-creators as well, and create level playing fields in the market rather than “unfair capitalisation of human creativity.” The debate should be encouraged on “cultural ideas, moral standards, and social orders.”


Platform players have phenomenal economic and civic power today. The US tech giants are pushing economic values and corporate interests, whereas Europe tends to favour social values and collective interests, the authors explain. It is important to clearly articulate what these public values are, who benefits from them, and how benefits can accrue across the board.


Proposed measures so far include requirements of transparency and accountability, registered data accountants, citizen collectives, and broad frameworks for ecosystem governance. Such measures increase public trust in platforms, and thus make business sense for the platform players as well, the authors argue.


Other initiatives have been launched by Tim Berners-Lee’s Open Society Foundation to promote fairness and equal access. GDPR has outlined privacy issues, and fines have been imposed for non-compliance.


Governments are regulators as well as tech developers. “Estonia is often mentioned as an advanced example of a proactive government ready to shape its platform society,” the authors observe.


A set of responsibility principles and alliances for a balanced platform ecosystem can wield influence in a manner similar to the UN sustainability goals and Paris climate accord. Governments should adopt a cross-sectoral design approach for the platform society that is “forward-looking and respectful of humanistic values,” the authors sign off.


(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)




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