Working paper Open Access

Mapping International Enquiries into the Power of Digital Platforms

Flew, Terry; Su, Chunmeizi

There has been a resurgence of interest across multiple jurisdictions in greater regulation by nation-states of aspects of the structure, conduct and performance of digital platforms. This has been driven by: growing concerns about the economic and other forms of power exercised by the largest platform companies in the digital economy; a series of ‘public shocks’ related to the misuse of such power and digital reach; pervasive community concerns about privacy, security, the misuse of personal data, and the erosion of rights in a digital age; and a policy shift from a ‘rights’ discourse that dominated early debates about internet governance towards one focused upon potential risks and online harms.

While there are similar factors across nations promoting questions about why greater regulation of digital platforms should occur, there is less consensus about how it should be undertaken. This report seeks to map the issues raised and policies recommended, identifying the issues as arising across the fields of competition policy, content policy and digital rights. Undertaking an initial environmental scan of 65 public enquiries, the authors undertook a textual and thematic analysis of a subset of 20 public inquiries, across seven countries, the European Union, and the United Nations. The approach taken parallels that of Kretschmer, Furgal and Schlesinger in their mapping of the emergence of a new regulatory field of platform governance in the United Kingdom (Kretschmer et al., 2021).

In terms of policy recommendations, it was found that with regards to competition, access to data, competition in digital markets, the future of the news industry, and platform regulation were common themes across the enquiries. The main drive for content regulation has been perceived online harms, and the main themes identified include the role of digital platforms, in disseminating or restricting access to harmful content, support for civil society organisations monitoring misinformation and online harms, development of multi-stakeholder codes of practice, and an expanded role of public authorities. In the more diffuse field of rights, the main drivers of policy reform are online targeting of consumers, transparency on political advertising, data portability, privacy laws, and regulations on third-party uses of data along the lines of the European Union’s GDPR. There is also an emerging literature on regulatory issues raised by artificial intelligence.

The report concludes with a discussion of issues raised by national policy regulations, including jurisdictional authority over global platforms headquartered in other countries, the question of who regulates, and the appropriate balance between nation-state regulation, industry self-regulation, and multi-stakeholder governance. It finds some support for the proposition that such issues are seeing the rise of hybrid regulatory entities that operate across industry and policy silos, as part of what Philip Schlesinger has termed neo-regulation (Schlesinger, 2021).

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