Economists tend to characterize the scope of regulation as a simple matter of expanding or contracting state power. But a political economy perspective emphasizes that social relations abhor a power vacuum. When state authority contracts, private parties fill the gap. That power can feel just as oppressive, and have effects just as pervasive, as garden variety administrative agency enforcement of civil law. As Robert Lee Hale stated, “There is government whenever one person or group can tell others what they must do and when those others have to obey or suffer a penalty.”
We are familiar with that power in employer-employee relationships, or when a massive firm extracts concessions from suppliers. But what about when a firm presumes to exercise juridical power, not as a party to a conflict, but the authority deciding it? I worry that such scenarios will become all the more common as massive digital platforms exercise more power over our commercial lives.
A few weeks ago, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (a think tank affiliated with the Social Democratic Party in Germany) invited me to speak at their Conference on Digital Capitalism. As European authorities develop long-term plans to address the rise of powerful platforms, they want to know: What is new, or particularly challenging, in digital capitalism?...MORE, including video of his talk.
My answer focused on the identity and aspirations of major digital firms. They are no longer market participants. Rather, in their fields, they are market makers, able to exert regulatory control over the terms on which others can sell goods and services. Moreover, they aspire to displace more government roles over time, replacing the logic of territorial sovereignty with functional sovereignty. In functional arenas from room-letting to transportation to commerce, persons will be increasingly subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control.
For example: Who needs city housing regulators when AirBnB can use data-driven methods to effectively regulate room-letting, then house-letting, and eventually urban planning generally? Why not let Amazon have its own jurisdiction or charter city, or establish special judicial procedures for Foxconn? Some vanguardists of functional sovereignty believe online rating systems could replace state occupational licensure—so rather than having government boards credential workers, a platform like LinkedIn could collect star ratings on them.
In this and later posts, I want to explain how this shift from territorial to functional sovereignty is creating a new digital political economy. Amazon’s rise is instructive. As Lina Khan explains, “the company has positioned itself at the center of e-commerce and now serves as essential infrastructure for a host of other businesses that depend upon it.” The “everything store” may seem like just another service in the economy—a virtual mall. But when a firm combines tens of millions of customers with a “marketing platform, a delivery and logistics network, a payment service, a credit lender, an auction house…a hardware manufacturer, and a leading host of cloud server space,” as Khan observes, it’s not just another shopping option.
Digital political economy helps us understand how platforms accumulate power. With online platforms, it’s not a simple narrative of “best service wins.” Network effects have been on the cyberlaw (and digital economics) agenda for over twenty years. Amazon’s dominance has exhibited how network effects can be self-reinforcing. The more merchants there are selling on (or to) Amazon, the better shoppers can be assured that they are searching all possible vendors. The more shoppers there are, the more vendors consider Amazon a “must-have” venue. As crowds build on either side of the platform, the middleman becomes ever more indispensable. Oh, sure, a new platform can enter the market—but until it gets access to the 480 million items Amazon sells (often at deep discounts), why should the median consumer defect to it? If I want garbage bags, do I really want to go over to Target.com to re-enter all my credit card details, create a new log-in, read the small print about shipping, and hope that this retailer can negotiate a better deal with Glad? Or do I, ala Sunstein, want a predictive shopping purveyor that intimately knows my past purchase habits, with satisfaction just a click away?
As artificial intelligence improves, the tracking of shopping into the Amazon groove will tend to become ever more rational for both buyers and sellers. Like a path through a forest trod ever clearer of debris, it becomes the natural default. To examine just one of many centripetal forces sucking money, data, and commerce into online behemoths, play out game theoretically how the possibility of online conflict redounds in Amazon’s favor. If you have a problem with a merchant online, do you want to pursue it as a one-off buyer? Or as someone whose reputation has been established over dozens or hundreds of transactions—and someone who can credibly threaten to deny Amazon hundreds or thousands of dollars of revenue each year? The same goes for merchants: The more tribute they can pay to Amazon, the more likely they are to achieve visibility in search results and attention (and perhaps even favor) when disputes come up. What Bruce Schneier said about security is increasingly true of commerce online: You want to be in the good graces of one of the neo-feudal giants who bring order to a lawless realm. Yet few hesitate to think about exactly how the digital lords might use their data advantages against those they ostensibly protect....
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Author Archives: Frank Pasquale