When the internet first entered popular consciousness, enthusiasts marveled at the dynamism and competitiveness of the early online ecosystem. Iconic companies like Netscape, Yahoo, AOL, and MySpace quickly emerged, peaked, and fell from prominence, and new competitors arose. However, in the last decade, a few big names have grown increasingly ubiquitous. Online players that started out like any online business, selling books or conducting basic searches, have become indispensable hubs of online activity. These massive digital platforms bring large swathes of the internet economy under one roof, providing billions with a streamlined, hyper-convenient user experience. However, by providing more services to more people, these platforms gain access to more data, and it can be very difficult to operate outside their umbrella. Observers worry that new entrepreneurs simply can’t compete with the data reserves, market power, and loyal user networks of the incumbent platforms.
Many are calling on policymakers to take on the largest platforms. The economic characteristics of these markets make them prone to tipping towards one or two dominant firms, making meaningful competition difficult. Public Knowledge advocates for new, pro-competition laws to promote competition on and against digital platforms. Congress should build a record and consider legislation setting up a regulatory system targeted specifically at digital platforms. Reports emerged last year that the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are divvying up responsibility for antitrust investigations into the conduct of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. Each of these companies is powerful enough to merit robust antitrust scrutiny, and Public Knowledge supports investigations by these law enforcement agencies if the agencies conclude that such action is warranted. However, digital platforms present a number of challenges for our economy and our society, and it will take more than antitrust enforcement to address them.
At several points in American history, transformational new technologies have given rise to industries that required new oversight regimes. The advent of railroads, radio communications and air travel each gave rise to new agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration, and the unique regulatory toolkits that they bring with them. Public Knowledge also believes that it is past time we develop a new toolkit of policies to deal with the challenges posed by digital platforms.
Public knowledge is advocating for the creation of a digital regulatory agency that has the expertise and the tools to address the problems posed by big platforms — from content moderation, to competition, to privacy and consumer protection.
Regulators need to be able to set certain rules for these platforms to encourage competition and discourage abuse. These rules might include:
- Interoperability and data portability, which would allow users to connect with each other across different platforms and move their data from one platform to another.
- Sets of rules for non-discrimination, CPNI (Customer Proprietary Network Information)-style usage limitations, and due process rights for commercial users who are hurt by sudden or arbitrary changes to the platform’s services.
- Thus, the regulator should also have the power to review and block mergers, concurrently with the existing antitrust agencies.
You can read more in Gene Kimmelman’s recent piece, “Key Elements and Functions of a New Digital Regulatory Agency.”
Public Knowledge also believes that digital platforms present some dangers to the public that more competition alone may not solve. That is why we need a rigorous public debate about social and consumer protections for online digital platforms, protections like:
- Consumer data privacy
- Promoting a diversity of voices and prevention of information bubbles in the online ecosystem
- Making Section 230 immunity of the Communications Decency Act work more effectively and giving Congress a share in the responsibility for moderating harmful online content