The use and abuse of data by Facebook and other tech companies are finally garnering the official attention they deserve. With personal data becoming the world’s most valuable commodity, would users be the platform economy’s masters or its slaves?
Prospects for democratizing the platform economy remain dim. Algorithms are developing in ways that allow companies to profit from our past, present and future behavior — or what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School describes as our “behavioral surplus.”
In many cases, digital platforms already know our preferences better than we do, and could nudge us to behave in ways that produce still more value. Do we really want to live in a society where our innermost desires and manifestations of personal agency are up for sale?
Capitalism has always excelled at creating new desires and cravings. With big data and algorithms, tech companies have both accelerated and inverted this process.
Rather than just creating new goods and services in anticipation of what people might want, they already know what we would want, and are selling our future selves.
Worse, the algorithmic processes being used often perpetuate gender and racial biases, and could be manipulated for profit or political gain. While we all benefit immensely from digital services such as Google search, we did not sign up to have our behavior cataloged, shaped and sold.
To change this would require focusing directly on the prevailing business model, and specifically on the source of economic rents. Just as landowners in the 17th century extracted rents from land-price inflation, and just as robber barons profited from the scarcity of oil, today’s platform firms are extracting value through the monopolization of search and e-commerce services.
To be sure, it is predictable that sectors with high network externalities — where the benefits to individual users increase as a function of the total number of users — would produce large companies. That is why telephone companies grew so massive in the past. The problem is not size, but how network-based companies wield their market power.
Today’s tech companies originally used their broad networks to bring in diverse suppliers, much to the benefit of consumers. Amazon allowed small publishers to sell titles (including my first book) that otherwise would not have made it to the display shelf at your local bookstore. Google’s search engine used to return a diverse array of providers, goods and services.
Now, both companies use their dominant positions to stifle competition, by controlling which products users see and favoring their own brands (many of which have seemingly independent names). Meanwhile, companies that do not advertise on these platforms find themselves at a severe disadvantage. As Tim O’Reilly has argued, over time, such rent seeking weakens the ecosystem of suppliers that the platforms were originally created to serve.
Rather than simply assuming that economic rents are all the same, economic policymakers should be trying to understand how platform algorithms allocate value among consumers, suppliers and the platform itself. While some allocations might reflect real competition, others are being driven by value extraction rather than value creation.
Thus, we need to develop a new governance structure, which starts with creating a new vocabulary. For example, calling platform companies “tech giants” implies they have invested in the technologies from which they are profiting, when it was really taxpayers who funded the key underlying technologies — from the Internet to GPS.