Citizen Erased

Part 1 – Platform Governance Politics

PART I – The Rise of Platforms and Platform Governance 

Summary 
This is a proposal for a thesis on the rise of platforms and platform governance. It is divided into two parts: part I introduces the underlying politics and ideologies of the internet, starting from its early years in the 1990s and the so-called “techno-optimism” or “techno utopianism” to the dogmatisation of disruption by North American technological companies, often met in literature as the “Californian ideology” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996), as well as the neoliberal embrace of a multi-stakeholder system of governance. Part I introduces platforms, Silicon Valley, and the public sphere, and discusses the historical, cultural, and political context to these firms’ growth. It also discusses the relationship between the Internet and platform Governance, concluding that it is crucial not to combine the two, despite their deep connectedness, to avoid replicating a corporate-driven narrative whereby platforms comprise the Internet. 

Part I introduces the underpinning politics and ideologies of the internet, starting from its early years in the 1990s and the so-called “techno-optimism” or “techno-utopianism” to the dogmatisation of disruption by North American technological companies, often met in literature as the “Californian ideology” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996), as well as the neoliberal embrace of a multi-stakeholder system of governance.  

This Part is separated in two chapters: the first chapter focuses on the concept of platform and explores how it came to dominate our digital public sphere, while the second chapter revolves around the concept of platform governance, providing a critical literature review. More specifically, the first chapter commences from presenting the Californian Ideology, as elaborated by Barbrook and Cameron (1996) to criticise the way in which early tech optimists and proponents of the concept of “the marketplace of ideas” jumped on the bandwagon of the commercialisation of the internet in the 1980s and 1990s with little regard for their innovations’ societal implications.  

I continue by discussing how the ‘marketplace of ideas’ was institutionalised in American legal tradition through the First Amendment. The next section focuses on the concept of platform, alongside other relevant notions like platformisation. Finally, I conclude by discussing the concept of the public sphere, albeit approached more radically than earlier theoretical accounts, and how it can be helpful in theorising about platform governance, which is the second chapter’s central focus.  

Subsequently, the next chapter focuses on what has come to be called as platform governance, that is the assemblage of sociotechnical and political-economic facets of platform technologies. By doing an extensive critical literature review, I discuss useful definitions for many theoretical concepts that are fundamental to this dissertation, like regulation and governance. I also examine the relationship between the Internet and platform governance, concluding that it is crucial not to conflate the two, despite their deep interconnectedness, to avoid replicating a corporate-driven narrative whereby platforms comprise the Internet. Finally, I offer some critical points with regard to the ongoing discussion about reconceptualising how we think about and study platform governance, while emphasising the need to address political-economic notions, like lobbying, capture, and dependence. 

  1. Platforms, Silicon Valley, and the Public Sphere 

At the time of writing this chapter, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), and Amazon (in that order) hold four out of the top five largest companies by market capitalisation globally; second in that list is Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national petroleum and natural gas company1. Meta Platforms (Facebook) currently sits at the twentieth place, after a swooping 65% loss of its stock value in 2022, chiefly, due to its decision to invest billions of dollars into the creation of Metaverse, Apple’s privacy changes for iOS users, and TikTok’s popularity explosion, especially amongst younger audiences (Conger & Chen, 2022). So, the dominance of GAFAM still stands (Barwick & Watkins, 2018). 

In addition to the above, we also must account for the consequences of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine in the economy, ranging from the energy crisis to the unprecedented levels of inflation. It is also worth noting that most of them did massive hirings early on in the pandemic to cope with the increased user demand. So, the aftermath did not only shake up Meta, as most tech companies faced a tumultuous year with their workers paying the price. According to Layoffs.fyi, a website tracking the layoffs of people working in the tech industry, 154,386 employees were laid off in 20222: Meta fired about 11,000, Twitter – following Musk’s acquisition – laid off more than 50% of its personnel, while Microsoft just announced that it will lay off 10,000 people (Pitt, 2022; Ziady, 2023).  

These aimed, allegedly, at cutting costs. Though, at the same time, Microsoft is discussing a $10 billion investment in OpenAI, a for-profit company creating AI technologies, like art generator Dall-E and chat generator ChatGPT (Browne, 2023). Thus, it is a deliberate decision to cut costs through layoffs and invest in acquisitions. Through a Marxist perspective, “the will to survive subject capitalists to a growth imperative” (M. J. Gordon, 1987, p. 529): 

“The development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation” (K. Marx, 1906, p. 649) 

While Marx’s axiom might be dated, with various schools of political economy having revisited this and many more, as Gordon notes in his paper (M. J. Gordon, 1987), I feel that the principle has endured, albeit with more conditions like through “predatory interaction with other systems” (ibid, p. 531) or the Keynesian perspective on the role that uncertainty and risk aversion play in capitalists’ growth strategies (ibid, p. 532). Indeed, this tendency of capital “for concentration and [centralisation]” seeks to “reduce uncertainties of competition, secure growth, maintain profit rates, control and exploit labour, and harness efficiencies of scale and scope” (Bilić et al., 2021, p. 157).  

In addition, this strategy of incessant growth through a diversification of their portfolio investments – usually in the form of acquisitions – also helps large capitalist companies, like the ones studied in this thesis, to avoid risks, mitigate, to the extent of possible, uncertainties, and maintain or expand their monopolies (Bilić et al., 2021, p. 117; M. J. Gordon, 1987, pp. 533-534). 

  1. Californian Ideology and Silicon Values 

As made clear in the introduction, this thesis is chiefly interested in studying digital communication platforms, like Google or Meta, and no other platforms that are part of the constellation of so-called ‘disruptors’, like Airbnb or Uber. Certainly, these conglomerates share common values, as they all stem from the same Silicon womb and are embroidered with the same patchwork of contradictory values and ideologies, which Barbrook and Cameron accurately captured in their seminal essay on the “Californian Ideology” (1996). This decision is, first, based on my own expertise and interest in media and communication studies, as well as on the practical side of narrowing down a research’s scope.  

More importantly, though, I believe that these platforms have forcefully transgressed the boundaries between private and public, ushering us into a state of permanent hybridity. Instrumental to that was the technological advancements, especially high-speed broadband internet and hardware and software innovations in mobile technologies. These platforms, then, have become infrastructures, i.e., “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space” (Larkin, 2013). This chapter tries to address this development by providing a historical, cultural, and political context to these firms’ growth, and by discussing the relevant literature that has engaged in studying these platforms both on an ontological and an epistemological level. 

Barbrook and Cameron wrote in their seminal essay about the “Californian Ideology”: a “contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism” (1996, p. 49), which “depends on a [wilful] blindness toward […] racism, poverty, and environmental degradation” (1996, p. 46). They identified “a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists, and artists from the West Coast of the United States” (1996, p. 44) as having succeeded in “[offering] a simple explanation” of the profound changes that were unfolding on many levels with the advent of digital and online technologies at a time when, following the end of the Cold War and the Wall’s fall (Fisher, 2009, p. 12), some were heralding that “history’s long march has come to an end as liberalism triumphed around the globe” (Brown, 2001, p. 8). 

This heterogeneous group, then, combining the “freewheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 45) achieved in offering a utopian vision of how society could function by incorporating information technologies in its governance so that “all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace” (ibid). A form of technocratic cyber-utopia (Tréguer, 2019) that was presented as a comforting alternative for “a generation that had grown up in a world beset by massive armies and by the threat of nuclear holocaust” (Turner, 2006, p. 5). Suffice to remember the opening of the infamous 1996 manifesto “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by internet philosopher John Perry Barlow (Barlow, 2016): 

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” 

The laissez-faire spirit, a sort of predecessor to the ‘move fast, break things’ motto of 2000s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, was unequivocally fundamental to the Californian Ideology (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 52). Interestingly, Barlow’s manifesto was written in 1996 World Economic Forum in Davos, on the same day that President Bill Clinton “signed into law the Communications Decency Act, an attempt to ban ‘obscene’ material on the internet” (York, 2021, p. 21). Barlow had co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) six years before his manifesto (ibid), one of the oldest and most well-known digital rights organisations to date.  

While one could attribute a certain degree of irony to the fact that this manifesto was written in the Meccah of neoliberalism, this should be seen in the broader context of these ‘evangelists.’ Internet historian Fred Turner (2003) has written extensively about one of the most central figures in Silicon Valley’s history, Steward Brand, who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s preaching about the liberating forces of technology and entrepreneurship (Smyrnaios, 2022). Figures like Barlow or Brand were not only zealots of the Californian Ideology but also handsomely paid consultants for firms, governments, and other stakeholders; Barlow, for instance, was also a member of Vanguard3, an elitist think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, while Brand was a co-founder of the Global Business Network4, a consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco. 

In any case, we could argue that the ideological drive behind Barlow’s declaration that hinted towards an apathy for politics, at least in their earthly, mundane form, shared the same contempt for regulation as neoliberalism. As Turner said of Barlow’s declaration and, particularly, the use of the “electronic frontier” as a metaphor: “it has not only eased the anxieties of the information elite, but increased their economic power” (1999, p. 10). This is because, according to Turner, this metaphor “renders the power of infrastructure owners invisible” (ibid) and seeks to blur the old class, racial, and gender clashes that were, allegedly, incompatible with the new cyberspace frontier. 

By and large, metaphors are powerful media that help structure the lens through which we see and experience reality (Castells, 1996, p. 328); hence their use is an action with inherent political qualities5. The term platform is such a metaphor, as we will see later in this chapter. Another fundamental metaphor for the Californian Ideology has been the ‘marketplace of ideas’, enhanced by the belief that online technologies would create a sort of “electronic agora” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 48; emphasis theirs).  

This idea, as scholars have noted, was firmly pushed by intellectual ‘technophiles’ like legal scholar Lawrence Lessig who claimed that “Code is Law” (Badouard, 2020, p. 21; Lessig, 1999), media theorist Marshall McLuhan, or ‘father’ of cybernetics Nobert Wiener (Tréguer, 2019, pp. 125–126), who “preached the radical message that the power of big business and big government would be imminently overthrown by the intrinsically empowering effects of new technology on individuals” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 48). 

These ideas, Turner writes, had profound effect on “young Americans [who] encountered a cybernetic vision of the world, one in which material reality could be imagined as an information system” (2006, p. 3). They became involved in “developing new information technologies for the alternative press” and other alternative forms of media, often in the form of “community media [activism]” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 48). Though, what could be initially regarded as people reacting to a post-World War grim reality, would later “[synthesise] a vision of technology as a countercultural force” (Turner, 2006, p. 6) that would together “create the Californian Ideology” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 49). 

As Smyrnaios has written, technology companies born from and with this mentality might boast about their commitment to ideals, like democracy and equality, but in fact are “focusing on societal issues and ignore the societal question” (Smyrnaios, 2022, p. 34)6. This is not far from the solutionist mindset of Silicon Valley poignantly detailed by Morozov (2013) or, perhaps, an axiom spelled out by Marx in the preface of his 1859 “A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy” (1970, p. 13): 

“Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” 

This is not to argue that technologies arise only to address problems that are solvable, which would require a treatise of its own, but rather to stress that, especially in late capitalism, capitalists are profiting from setting the agenda as regards the next thing in need of solving, that is superficially tackling a societal issue, insofar as they are in the process of achieving, or have already achieved, the material means to do so. Hence, these companies “exert a disproportionate influence on political life by massively financing causes that are dear to them and by ‘capturing’ a substantial part of the media and institutions for their interests” (Smyrnaios, 2022, p. 41).  

  1. The Marketplace of Ideas Metaphor 

At any rate, it is vital to circle back to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ metaphor in order to examine how it imbued not only the products and services that Silicon Valley start-uppers developed but also the legal framework within which they operated – and continue to operate for the most part. Critical scholars of information law studies, like Julie Cohen (2019), Yochai Benkler, or Amy Kapczinsky (Kapczynski, 2020)7, among others, have provided us with enlightening accounts of how this metaphor, essentially, consists of a “fairy tale” (Benkler, 2022). Specifically, Cohen argues that the marketplace metaphor is a neoliberal and modern “inflection, positing a virtuous alignment between economic and expressive liberty” (2019a, p. 76). It is a powerful metaphor because it, effectively, builds upon and distorts “the familiar conception of the public sphere” (Cohen, 2019a, p. 94), a concept which will be examined in the following sections. 

The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a hypothetical site “where the laws of supply and demand produce high-quality information” and those participating in this arena, as well as what is said within it, should be regulated only on the basis of these laws (Cohen, 2019a, pp. 94–95). Historically, this was what fuelled “the traditional First Amendment frame” in the US that allowed Internet intermediaries to grow uncontrollably by providing them “broad immunities from regulatory oversight” (Cohen, 2019a, p. 261).  

As hinted earlier, in 1996, the Clinton administration introduced the infamous Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), that came into force as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, protecting intermediaries from being held liable for content hosted on their services. Cohen recounts how “members of Congress endorsed the marketplace metaphor as a principal justification” for Section 230, as it also encouraged intermediaries to “make available to consumers tools for filtering out undesirable content” (2019a, p. 98); this essentially introduced content moderation as a fundamental piece to maintaining the utopia of a ‘marketplace of ideas.’ 

Furthermore, Kapczynski contends that this was not always the case as regards US policymaking, evoking as a case in point the Fairness Doctrine (2022). Briefly, the Fairness Doctrine was issued by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949, requiring radio and television broadcasters to provide a “fair and balanced” presentation of the public issues, including the obligation for the representation of all views on such issues (Napoli, 2021, p. 3). While the regulator gave “little guidance” as to how broadcasters should go about fulfilling their obligations, “these caveats gave [them] some autonomy to determine whether particular positions and particular groups were outside the bounds of what constitutes responsible contributions” (Napoli, 2021, pp. 3-34). In other words, it encouraged editorial decision-making, but with sufficient regulatory backstops. 

Napoli asserts that “[t]he reason that the Supreme Court considered the Fairness Doctrine constitutional in the broadcasting contex, but not in the context of other media, has to do with the fact that broadcasters are licensees of a ‘scarce public resource’” (2021, p. 4). The FCC terminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which had received persistent criticism from officials who supported that the regulation was incompatible with the First Amendment, despite the Supreme Court’s favourable rulings (Napoli, 2021, p. 5). Yet, as Napoli writes, the FCC did not act on grounds of the Fairness Doctrine’s constitutionality but rather because of the growth of number of media available would de facto ensure a plurality of viewpoints (Napoli, 2021, p. 5); put differently, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ would make sure that all points are represented. 

I do not wish to argue for a return of the Fairness Doctrine or similar regulation. As Napoli points out, technological and political changes make it outdated, especially as it put “uncritical emphasis on diversity of viewpoints over increasingly pressing concerns such as accuracy, objectivity, and truthfulness” (2021, p. 12). In other words, the social media’s affordances, along with the ways that our political systems and citizens use these platforms, make it impossible for a regulatory framework to consider them as passive conduits. Conversely, what I want to highlight with this brief historical account is that there was a certain shift in how US public authorities, regulators, and institutions thought of freedom of expression. That shift can roughly be connected to the 1980s, at the peak of neoliberalism – both regarding the way it was applied and the ideological framework it bore. 

Therefore, “the immense power of intermediary platforms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon is also an [artefact] of these shifts […]: All of this was enabled by law” (Kapczynski, 2022). So, while the Californian Ideology crystalised all the ideological shifts described earlier as regards the supposedly emancipatory qualities that online technologies had, its dominance – or more correctly, the dominance of its proponents – would not have been equally successful if not for the aforementioned shift in law, which championed a distorted framing of the public sphere in the name of a supposed ‘marketplace of ideas’. In the next sections, we turn our attention to another metaphor, that of platforms, and to the concept of the public sphere. 

  1. The Platform Metaphor and the Phenomenon of Platformisation 

It is truly perplexing to narrowly define online platforms; are they technology enterprises, communication services, advertising intermediaries, or media companies? In a sense, they can be all those at once, but that would run the risk of emboldening a platform-deterministic narrative of unimaginable corporate power, as well as limit our critical capacity to challenge platform power (Helberger, 2020). A brief literature review will shed light on this almost philosophical question.  

First and foremost, we must be wary of the platform metaphor itself, which is used to convey the sense of bridging two or more parties, thereby situating an entity as an intermediary, while obfuscating its original purposes (Gillespie, 2010). Initially, platforms were the elevated surface from which politicians would address the public, hence, gradually becoming interwoven with the idea of a place from which ideas could be voiced (Gillespie, 2010, p. 350). Additionally, as scholars have theorised, and as the definition provided by Gillespie attests, modern platforms have become digital infrastructures, upon which applications can be built and run (Gillespie, 2010; Plantin et al., 2018).  

They also afford specific social exchanges to take place on or through them, such as “an opportunity to communicate, interact or sell” (2010, p. 347). Thus, it is important to think about platforms in tandem with their context, their users’ perception, as well as their affordances, procedures, and politics (Bucher & Helmond, 2018; Gillespie, 2010; Plantin & Punathambekar, 2019). Indeed, Gillespie has provided us with an acute critique of the platform metaphor, further contributing to the discussion related to uncritically employing metaphors.  

Specifically, Gillespie contends that the “platform as a bridge” metaphor “implies a neutrality” (Gillespie, 2010, p. 349) and went on to deconstruct that “comforting sense” of “technical neutrality and progressive openness” by arguing that “a term like ‘platform’ […] is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims” (ibid: 359-360). He also stressed how this metaphor obscures liability for data and content circulation, as well as their meticulous interference through algorithmic content curation (2010) or vastly obscure content moderation practices (Gillespie, 2018a; Roberts, 2019). 

By and large, the scholarly investigation of platforms has given rise to a rich interdisciplinary literature. Plantin et al. have written about this phenomenon in a literature review, arguing that, due to the platform’s conceptual mutability, it is only reasonable that the approach to defining and studying it would be interdisciplinary (2018). They describe how the concept of platform has been employed by scholars ranging from game design or platform studies (Bogost & Montfort, 2007) to social media studies (Dijck, 2013; Gillespie, 2010; Helmond, 2015). In particular, they note that “programmability, affordances and constraints, connection of heterogeneous actors, and accessibility of data and logic through [A]pplication [P]rogramming [I]nterfaces ([APIs])” are among the key features in studies focusing on platforms (Plantin et al., 2018, p. 294). 

Other scholarly accounts have focused on the business aspect of platforms, investigating best competition practices between tech conglomerates, like minimising entry barriers (Nooren et al., 2018). Nieborg and Poell have contended how “bringing into dialogue” three different epistemological stems, namely “business studies, political economy, and software studies” (2018, p. 3) can help us develop a more comprehensive theoretical framework to study “interrelated changes in market structures, platform governance, and infrastructure” (2018, p. 2). Additionally, critical law scholars are also scrutinising platforms, not simply as businesses or legal entities, but also as social constructs that transform the conditions for socioeconomic exchanges (Cohen, 2017), while expressing worries about problematic content, like hate speech and disinformation (Citron, 2018). 

So, how can we define a platform? Let us take a closer look at two definitions. On the one hand, van Dijck et al. have defined “[a]n online ‘platform’ [a]s a programmable digital architecture designed to organise interactions between users – not just end users but also corporate entities and public bodies” (2018, p. 4). On the other hand, Poell et al. have framed the notion as “data infrastructures that facilitate, aggregate, monetize, and govern interactions between end-users and content and service providers” (2022, p. 6). 

I consider that there is value in combining both definitions, as the former sheds light on the “programmability” of platform architecture (e.g., think of APIs), while the latter emphasises the political-economic weight of platforms. Thus, this dissertation adopts both definitions to delineate what constitutes a platform as its primary focus is on digital communication platforms with specific characteristics of social networking sites, namely platforms that are important for cultural production and the dissemination of information.  

Subsequently, as noted earlier, online private platforms function as infrastructures for our communicational or commercial exchanges. At the heart of the platform model lie network and lock-in effects, which are produced through a “self-reinforcing feedback loop” that results in the “growth of value […] with increases in the number of users” (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020, p. 38) and the entrapment of users into proprietary digital environments without the option of interoperability or opting-out (Winseck, 2022). These effects are made possible due to platforms’ “datafication” processes (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020, p. 39; Schäfer & Es, van, 2017), which create “data relations” through which data are extracted to generate value (Couldry & Mejias, 2019a, p. 27).  

Specifically, following Mansell and Steinmuller’s analysis on what constitutes a platform from a more critical political-economic perspective, we lay out some key characteristics: a) they rely on “network effects,” whereby “the more numerous the users who use a platform, the more valuable the platform becomes for everyone else” (Srnicek, 2017, p. 45) and, thus, simultaneously augmenting the platform’s social value (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020, p. 38; Parker et al., 2016, p. 34), b) they lock people in their respective ecosystems, creating high costs for users in case they wish to leave or migrate to another service (Dijck, 2013, p. 154), c) rely on algorithmic curation of content, mostly through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms, to matchmake and serve multisided markets (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020, pp. 23–25), d) do not require a subscription or a fee for their use, but instead generate revenue primarily by indirectly monetising users’ data through advertising (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020, pp. 37–38), and e) engage in self-governing practices, which might be elicited by formal regulation, like content moderation (Gillespie, 2018a). 

As such, digital platforms are considered to be digital intermediaries in multisided markets that have, in recent years, transformed into infrastructures for many industries and, indeed, for our socioeconomic exchanges (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020; Plantin & Punathambekar, 2019). This phenomenon is often referred to as “platformisation”: “the penetration of online infrastructures, economic processes, and governmental frameworks of online platforms in different societal sectors and spheres of life” (Poell et al., 2019, p. 4). This phenomenon is innately connected ontologically and epistemologically to the concept of platforms. Platformisation has been at the heart of many critical studies of online platforms in the last decade, especially since the publication of Helmond’s seminal article. 

Bratton, a political philosopher, has given us an account of global technological systems that, essentially, depicts online platforms and platformisation: “a standards-based technical-economic system that simultaneously distributes interfaces through their remote coordination and centralises their integrated control through that same coordination” (Bratton, 2015, p. 42). Interestingly, Bratton’s take on the definition echoes the concept of platformisation as theorised by Helmond, that is “the extension of social media platforms into the rest of the web and their drive to make external web data ‘platform ready’” (2015, p. 1).  

Helmond’s enquiry mainly focused on platforms’ tools and services that allowed them to gather data from various online sources by creating access points, like Facebook’s Like button. Her contribution cannot be stressed enough because it enabled us to scrutinise platforms’ affordances (Bucher & Helmond, 2018) and divulge complex mechanisms that allow socioeconomic exchanges to take place (van Dijck et al., 2018).  

However, it has not been enough to address political-economical questions on its own. Later work showed an interest to research “platform power and their effects” (Helmond et al., 2017) with novel ways, noting though that “further research should contextualise the politics of stakeholder relations” (2017, p. 5). This is where the political-economic framework of infomediation comes in, allowing us to delve into said relations to emerge issues of “maldistribution of power” (Smyrnaios & Rebillard, 2019) and emphasise “the mediation between information and consumption” (Siapera, 2013, p. 11). 

Smyrnaios and Rebillard’s (2019) interpretation of platformisation, inspired by critical cultural studies, is presented as complementary to the concept of infomediation. By combining both conceptual frameworks, we are able to holistically scrutinise platforms as infomediaries that hold and exert asymmetrical power over other platform governance stakeholders, like producers of cultural “commodities and ideas” (Smyrnaios & Rebillard, 2019).  

  1. The Conceptual Framework of Data Colonialism 

In addition to the above, the concept of “data colonialism” (Couldry & Mejias, 2019b) is also a critical lens through which we can tackle platform power. Couldry and Mejias highlight the interconnectedness of colonialism, “dataism” (van Dijck et al., 2018), and capitalism. They argue that the quantified world in which we now live is a product of the continuation and expansion of both colonialism and capitalism: not a new frontier, but the inevitable expansion of an existing one.  

Moreover, they situate data and labour dynamics in a much broader historical context of capitalism’s mutations, rather than examining the current status quo of data exploitation. As such, it is made evident quite early on that the authors desire to draw a line from the existing literature, which has criticised such issues from a rather liberalist point of view pointing to ‘rogue’ versions of capitalism (Zuboff, 2019). In essence, the authors do not blame it all on some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that went rogue, creating an unprecedented network of mass surveillance or data exploitation. Instead, they frame their critique around the modern political economy of capitalism, along with colonialist tendencies, which permitted the creation of such infrastructures.  

By extent, they do not invoke colonialism as a metaphor but rather to tie the extractivist rationale and practices of historical colonialism to that of data colonialism. They claim that our relationship with data today is one of “data colonialism”: “the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit” (2019b, p. xiii). Just as historical colonialism appropriated land, bodies, and resources in order to extract value, data colonialism is appropriating human life through quantification (ibid). And just as historical colonialism rationalised its violence through ideologies of ‘civilising’ the world, the ‘superiority’ of the colonisers over the colonised, and the need to make use of ‘natural’ resources, data colonialism rationalising its constant accumulation of data by framing it as ‘connection’, ‘personalisation’ and ‘democratisation’ (Couldry & Mejias, 2019b, pp. 96–97). 

The authors point to the emergence of the ‘social quantification sector’ as a key driver of data colonialism. While, as they posit, the collection of social data dates back to the nineteenth century, the ‘big five’ technology companies – GAFAM – have taken the quantification of the social to new levels. They collect data about us continuously and opaquely to understand and predict our behaviour, primarily, as consumers.  

One key takeaway point from Couldry’s and Mejia’s book is the colonialist naturalisation of resources. Through a historical colonialist frame, natural resources are treated as things that are “just there” to be exploited. In similar fashion, data colonialism treats social relations as resources that can be extracted and utilised to optimise algorithms to maximise profits, hence transforming them into “data relations” (Couldry & Mejias, 2019b, p. 88). Notably, it is not uncommon for current dominant online platforms to “conceive of themselves” as “nation-states” (Couldry & Mejias, 2019b, pp. 26–27), legitimising a rhetoric that demonstrates political ambitions. Consider, for example, how Facebook’s Oversight Board was initially framed as the company’s “Supreme Court” (Griffin, 2021).  

As Stern has written, the “company-state [is] a corporate with immense powers to regulate not just trade but also law, land, and liberty, in short, to regulate life” (2011, p. 39). It also worth mentioning that Couldry and Mejias allude to “state legislation” as “the best hope” in taming the capitalist appetite of big tech platforms (2019b, pp. 180–181). This certainly holds some truth, as several recent examples demonstrate, including this dissertation’s Case Study #3. Yet, as critical scholars, we must also be reserved about regulation’s impact because, as historical colonialism have evidenced, state power is not an emancipatory force, and neither is stakeholder capitalism (Flew & Martin, 2022, pp. 293–294). To this end, studying the political economy of platforms’ regulatory frameworks, as well as adopting a decolonial approach in “data and technology research” (Couldry & Mejias, 2021) is essential; this is also discussed in Chapter 5.  

  1. The Public Sphere and Social Media Platforms 

In this section, I wish to discuss the concept of the public sphere in order to demonstrate, on the one hand, how it has little to do with its neoliberal interpretation examined earlier and, on the other, how it might benefit our enquiry into platform governance. The term “public sphere” is nowadays mostly used as a theoretical model to study democratic legitimation while breaking-free from the “conventional institutional understanding of how politics occur” (Eley, 2002, p. 230). While I do not wish to provide an extensive literature review of works that have studied the concept of the public sphere, I do believe it is useful to acknowledge some foundational works and critiques. 

Habermas, in his seminal book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), that was initially published in 1962, discussed how the public sphere, which was initially conceived as a space of “private persons” of a certain privileged stratum to deliberate about their common affairs and issues of the public interest; hence, “an [institutionalised] arena of discursive interaction” (Fraser, 1990, pp. 57, 59). This stratum consisted of a “bourgeois public”, that is “the educated classes” which “occupied a central position within the ‘public’” (Habermas, 1989, pp. 22-24) and which “[mediated] between ‘society’ and the state by holding the state accountable to ‘society’ via ‘publicity’” or the “public opinion” (Fraser, 1990, p. 58). 

Fraser notes that this sphere was “conceptually distinct from the state” and “the official-economy”, as it was “a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling” (1990, p. 57). As Habermas writes: 

“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social [labour]” (1989, p. 48) 

Thus, the public sphere is understood as “a category of bourgeois society” “not just because its members are mostly bourgeois but also because the [reorganisation] of society around the institutions of public criticism was one of the means by which bourgeois society came into being, conscious of itself as ‘society’” (Warner, 2014). Hence, one of the major benefits of Habermas’ conceptualisation of the public sphere was a historically and analytically rich examination of the distinction between the private and the public (Seeliger & Villa Braslavsky, 2022; Warner, 2014), which, despite its own limitations and controversies, “[showed] that bourgeois society has always been structured by a set of ideals that were contradicted by its own organization and compromised by its own ideology” (Seeliger and Villa Braslavsky, 2022, p. 69). Nowadays, the private does not “just refer to the household but to private enterprise and industry, market values, and an array of capitalist powers that undermine public goods and public obligations” (Seeliger and Villa Braslavsky, 2022, p. 69). Yet, it was the private sphere that enabled the creation of these normative ideals that constructed the bourgeois public sphere according to Habermas. 

Moreover, this public sphere, which engaged in rational-critical discourse about matters of general interest, underwent a fundamental transformation in European societies in the late 17th and 18th century (Warner, 2014). This was mainly attributed to the political, social and cultural developments that growth of the modern state, along with its bureaucratic and administrative “dynamics of regulation and exclusion” to govern society (Seeliger & Villa Braslavsky, 2022, p. 69), and the advent of mass media, which helped establish a “pseudo-public sphere” (Habermas, 1989, p. 162), far from the ideals of the initial public sphere. 

As succinctly put by Boeder, the “work describes the evolution from opinion to public opinion and the socio–structural transformation of the latter” (2005, p. 2). Here, the “public opinion” takes on a negative connotation because of the commercialisation of those who were able to wield it. Fundamental to this transformation was the participation of “practitioners of public relations” (ibid), including the mass media, in the public sphere, who sought to “manufacture” or “engineer consent” (Bernays, 1947; Herman & Chomsky, 2002). This caused the transformation of the public sphere into “a platform for advertising” (Habermas, 1989, p. 181), which “was met halfway by the [commercialisation] of the press” (1989, p. 189) and the broader dominance of consumerism (Boeder, 2005; Rheingold, 1994; Smythe, 1977). 

Habermas laments this development, arguing that this development did not serve the public sphere’s original purpose, which was to rationally deliberate in favour of the general interest, but to form opinions to pursue competitive capitalist interests (Boeder, 2005, p. 3). Boeder notes that “[c]entral in Habermas’ thinking is the notion that the quality of society depends on our capacity to communicate, to debate and discuss” (2005, p. 3) and that “just institutions can lead to a fairer society based on cooperation rather than competition” (ibid). Importantly, Habermas identifies a connection between the proliferation of publicists and advertisers in the public sphere and the increasing “oligopolistic restriction of the market” (1989, p. 190), which characterises the “competitive capitalism” (1989, p. 79) which has been dominant in Western societies, roughly, since the half of the 20th century. In that sense, Habermas stresses the important underlying material and political-economic aspect of the public sphere (Fuchs, 2014, p. 57). 

Habermas’ work has received numerous critiques, with some of the major points concentrating on the idealisation of the liberal public sphere and his negligence of other “competing publics” consisting of communities that were excluded from the public sphere, like women and “men of [racialised] ethnicities of all classes” (Fraser, 1990, p. 63). Even Habermas himself, following critique (Eley, 2002; Flyvbjerg, 1998; Fraser et al., 1995), acknowledged that he had neglected the existence of multiple competing public spheres in his early work (Habermas, 1992).  

Fraser, though, argues in favour of not dismissing the concept of public sphere because she argues that “it is indispensable to critical theory” (1990, p. 57). I reckon that she does so because it offers a useful frame to work with; or, as Eley put it, “it provides a way of [conceptualising] an expanded notion of the political. It forces us to look for politics in other social places” (2002, p. 231). Eley has also provided a feminist account of the public sphere, whereby the public spaces, where deliberation took place, are considered as manifestations of masculinity compared to the private spaces, like households, which are considered as manifestations of a patriarchal femininity (Eley, 1994).  

Furthermore, some critics have argued that Habermas’ concept of rational-critical discourse is overly optimistic and does not take into account the ways in which power and inequality can influence the public discourse. For example, Mouffe arguing in favour of a “radical and plural democracy”, postulated that the rational-critical discourse is too idealistic and does not consider the ways in which power and inequality shape public discourse.  

“[T]he belief that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible, even if envisaged as an asymptotic approach to the regulative ideal of a free and unconstrained communication, as in Habermas, far from providing the necessary horizon of the democratic project, is something that puts it at risk” (Mouffe, 1993, p. 8). 

The technological advancements, especially the Internet’s consolidation and the rise of social media, have had equally transforming consequences. Scholars, including Habermas, argue that these have brought upon a new structural transformation of the public sphere (Habermas, 2022; Seeliger & Sevignani, 2022). This relates to the existence of multiple public spheres, as this new networked society (Castells, 2009), presented us the illusion of a common public sphere in high-fidelity. As Butler said, “the internet does, to a certain degree, produce a common field of representation, it does so unequally” (Seeliger & Villa Braslavsky, 2022, p. 69). 

As was presented earlier in this chapter, the wave of technological innovation, especially online services, and infrastructures, further fuelled an optimistic and, in cases, deterministic viewpoint that considered the Internet as a liberating force. As Benkler wrote in 2006, the Internet provided the opportunity to citizens to become “potential [speakers], as opposed to simply [listeners] and [voters]” and […] “creators” (2006, p. 213). In that sense, he continues, “the Internet [democratises]” (2006, p. 272). Similarly, Jenkins, albeit with a focus on popular culture, talked about how the Internet introduced a new era of participatory culture, wherein media convergence created new opportunities for media companies to “spread” their content across many platforms, beyond traditional media like radio or television (2006). 

Benkler, essentially, describes what came to be known as “Web 2.0”: a qualitative and quantitative transformation (2006, p. 213) of the traditional one-to-many model to that of many-to-many, which allowed for the creation and distribution of User-Generated Content (UGC) to the open web. According to Smyrnaios, this shift was not enabled simply by technological advancements but also due to the ineffectiveness of the early online advertising model, which was totally revamped following the 2000 dot-com bubble (2018, p. 118). Continuing, Smyrnaios also describes how the “Web 2.0” keyword was, effectively, a rebrand pushed by prominent marketeer Tim O’ Reilly to grow interest in new platform services that would exploit UGC and users’ data to create better advertising conditions (2018, p. 118). 

The “Web 2.0” shift, then, created the conditions for then-nascent platforms to rise and thrive in “a [globalised] and deregulated economy that [favoured] the extreme concentration of resources” (Smyrnaios, 2018, p. 4). These conditions persist to this day:  

“The present form of the internet owes nothing to its supposedly intrinsic technical characteristics of being participatory and democratic but rather results from the complex relationships between actors whose economic and political interests are both powerful and antagonistic” (Smyrnaios, 2018, p. 4) 

Indeed, as Mansell notes, there is “[t]he myth that the digital platform companies have been virtually unregulated or self-regulated” but, in fact, “[they] are subject to a considerable number of legislative conditions – with regard to commerce, data protection and more” (2019, p. 43-44). Thus, she continues, “the issue […] is not whether the digital platforms should be regulated, it is how institutional arrangements can be altered to better reflect societal norms and values so that new conditions shape the platforms’ priorities and business practices” (Mansell, 2019, p. 44). 

Furthermore, the advent of novel digital and online technologies brought about a structural transformation in the public sphere, where citizens could now participate, ostensibly, in a more direct and unmediated way. However, as astutely observed quite early by Papacharissi, this transformation was being sabotaged by “information access inequalities and new media literacy” (2002, p. 9). Importantly, Papacharissi was reluctant to conflate this novel online “public space” with the public sphere, which, as she noted, facilitates “greater, but not necessarily diverse, participation in a political discussion” and is further compromised by “dependence on special interests and a capitalist mode of production [and…] the quickly expanding commodification of internet-related resources” (2002, p. 22). 

Additionally, recent scholarly contributions to the literature about the public sphere have argued that global commercial online technologies may constitute a new structural transformation regarding the way in which our public spheres are shaped (Seeliger & Sevignani, 2022) or in appropriating citizens’ participation in socio-political exchanges for profit (Staab & Thiel, 2022). In particular, Habermas’s opinion is that private social media platforms endanger the homogeneity and harmony of the public sphere through the creation of social silos, like filter bubbles or echo chambers (2022).  

For contextual reasons, filter bubbles are defined as unique spaces created by social media platforms’ personalisation algorithms, presenting us content that we are more likely to engage with based on our data profiles (Pariser, 2014), while echo chambers are defined as “enclosed media [spaces] that [have] the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal” (Jamieson & Cappella, 2010, p. 76). However, empirical evidence has recently suggested that we should be hesitant to adopting these concepts, as “echo chambers are smaller than commonly assumed, and a growing amount of research [is] rejecting the filter bubble hypothesis” (Arguedas et al., 2022, p. 30).  

Certainly, this does not mean that social media affordances are not factored in the consequences of platforms to the public sphere. Platforms, as we will also empirically see in this dissertation, create and sustain power imbalances, inequalities in terms of access in news and information, govern in an unaccountable and compound way, are responsible for widespread online harassment and disinformation campaigns, and so on and so forth. Therefore, following Seeliger and Sevignani, I contend that in order to better conceive the new structural transformation of the public sphere elicited by social media, we have to focus on (platform) “governance structures” (2022, p. 13) in addition to the socio-cultural context.  

Furthermore, I believe that the multi-stakeholder governance regime, under which the internet and social networking sites thrived, does not represent the multiple interconnected public spheres, and has been adopted as a framework by dominant stakeholders to perpetuate existent power relations, that is, to preserve the status quo that exists outside the constructed barriers of the digital world (Carr, 2015). This brings to mind what Schmidt has named “discursive institutionalism,” in which exchanges between actors can promote institutional changes but also strengthen existing realities (2008). So, the political economy of digital platforms’ regulation is, by extension, an agonistic arena, in which stakeholders deliberate to secure a better position in the edifice of platform governance, which plays a dramatic role in formulating public sphere and, consequently, public discourse. 

In addition, as this thesis aims to also contribute to the re-imagination of platform governance, I follow Carr’s criticism to the ‘monopoly’ of polycentricity and the lack of critical theorisation: “[the] more we understand about the opportunities and weaknesses of governance models for the Internet (or anything else) the better equipped we are to effectively refine and amend those practices, functions and roles that comprise it” (Carr, 2015, p. 643).  

This type of critique is also in line with what other scholars have said of the Habermasian interpretation of the public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002) regarding the idealised exchange of rational arguments that, inevitably, will lead to a logical consensus (Habermas, 1989, p. 19). Yet, this has the risk of ignoring power relations (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p. 213), as well as the stark asymmetries among stakeholders (Gourgues et al., 2013, p. 20), while contradicting the “very essence of politics […] in the networked public sphere” (Salikov, 2018, p. 94). 

Concluding, we ought to acknowledge that not all actors in the current public sphere have the same leverage and that, more often than not, these multi-stakeholder regimes reinforce and privilege existing power relations rather than truly decentralise power and ensure democratic participation (Carr, 2015). Hence, we must not forget the socio-technical affordances of each platform and, subsequently, how public spheres are constructed and negotiated, especially, in corporate-governed and profit-driven online spaces.  

  1. Platform Governance  
  1. The Challenge of Studying Platform Governance 

Parts of this chapter have been published as a peer-reviewed publication: Papaevangelou, C. (2021). The existential stakes of platform governance: A critical literature review. Open Research Europe, 1, 31. https://doi.org/10.12688/openreseurope.13358.2 

A burgeoning volume of scholarly work has embraced the notion of platform governance  as a way of conceptualising, on the one hand, the broader categories of stakeholders who participate in decision-making processes within the platform ecosystem, and on the other hand, the norms, mechanisms and – formal or informal – rules that dictate how platforms govern and are governed (Flew, Martin, and Suzor 2019; Gillespie 2018). In other words, platform governance refers to the assemblage of sociotechnical and political-economic facets of platform technologies (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020).  

This has further expanded the interdisciplinary boundaries of literature that relate to regulation and governance and has effectively consolidated the concept. The underlying common ground of these works is online platforms and, specifically, social media platforms (Bucher & Helmond, 2018; Gillespie, 2010). In this chapter, I attempt to theoretically frame the discussion with works stemming from the broader field of regulation and governance (Braithwaite, 2008; Kjaer & Vetterlein, 2018; Levi-Faur, 2011), media studies (Flew et al., 2021; Napoli, 2015; Puppis, 2010), internet governance (DeNardis, 2010; Hofmann et al., 2017) and research studying content moderation or regulation of social media platforms  (Douek, 2019; Flew et al., 2019; Gorwa, 2019a).Therefore, this chapter serves as a critical exploration of relevant literature, aiming to underpin this dissertation’s overarching theoretical framework.  

The works reviewed in this chapter constitute a rather extensive representation of relevant literature and their selection was done through a quasi-snowball sampling, whereby I started reviewing pivotal publications connected with the topics of platform governance, as well as prior works that have studied regulation and governance.  

This is an important field, not only because it expands our research horizons, but also because it aims to inform stakeholders found at every position within the governance spectrum. It is, thus, a timely effort to properly situate the discussion revolving around platform governance and to also contribute to the field’s reconceptualisation and reimagination in a way that encompasses more critical and political viewpoints; we will touch upon this near the end of this part. In addition, one other point I wish to drive home with this literature review is to surface the existential stakes of conflating the internet with large social media platforms, which is often done by scholars who engage with the study of platform governance (Papaevangelou, 2021).  

Therefore, it is also my ambition to discern the two to study platform governance as a distinct – yet intertwined – field from that of the broader internet governance structure and, thus, contribute to a much-needed reimagination of the way that regulatory frameworks are developed within current governance structures. Hence, I contend that this literature review is not only useful for my dissertation’s theoretical framework but also for interested scholars who wish to further theorise about and contribute to this vibrant field. 

  1. Towards a definition of regulation and governance 
  1. Regulation 

It is crucial, at this point, to clarify how governance and regulation are understood in this dissertation. Perhaps contrary to what is most common, I will first provide my own interpretation of the definition of regulation and governance, and then unpack them relying on relevant literature. I reckon that this will help make these multi-layered concepts easier to understand. First, regulation is defined as a governance mechanism, involving the intentional – direct or indirect –  intervention in the activities of a stakeholder, with the intention to change a stakeholder’s modus operandi, which, in turn, may have unpredictable – yet measurable –  consequences to the governance regime (Black, 2008; Koop & Lodge, 2015; Levi-Faur, 2011). By extension, governance is defined here as a complex networked structure that accommodates different stakeholders, who are connected to and coordinated through various types of regulations, norms, and practices (Heritier, 2002; Offe, 2009; Stoker, 1998).  

What is more, I conceive governance as a bifold concept: governance as structure and governance as power. I reckon that the former allows us to examine an ecosystem from a structural standpoint and, thus, map its stakeholders, whereas the latter elucidates governance’s analytical elements, which allow us to enquire an ecosystem’s power relations through their (in)formal arrangements, products (e.g., regulations) and processes of deliberations (Mattli & Woods, 2009). As can be inferred, there is an innate connection between regulation and governance, in the sense that governance offers the structure in which political-economic relations formulate, primarily, through regulation.  

What is more, another element that quickly becomes visibly important is power. Michel Foucault theorised about power as a possibility, a concept that “can only exist when it is put in action” (Foucault, 1982, p. 788) and proposed that power relations are a fitting way for analysing institutions as they “structure the field of other possible actions” (ibid, p. 791). In addition, Manuel Castells has postulated that “power is the relational capacity to impose an actor’s will over another actor’s will on the basis of the structural capacity of domination embedded in the institutions of society” (Castells, 2011, p. 775). As a result, by enquiring power relations and their “[agonistic]” nature (Foucault, 1982, p. 790), we can deduce how power is negotiated among platform governance stakeholders and, thus, understand how regulation is shaped.  

The above rationale is of crucial importance to this dissertation, which engages with the study of platform governance’s political economy, which essentially asks the question of how governance of, by and through platforms (Agarwal, 2022; Gillespie, 2018b) is shaped and, in turn, how they shape political and economic outcomes. In most case studies presented in this thesis, we explore how platform governance stakeholders negotiate power among themselves and, particularly, how online platforms’ own systems of governance are perceived by and interact with other stakeholders. 

So, one critical way of understanding power in power relations is as exercising governance through regulation. Regulation consists of a large gamut of factors, including “politics, policies, institutions and effectiveness of formal and informal controls” (Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 16). In other words, to study regulation, one has to take into consideration a plethora of elements, alongside their innate political and, often, conflictual attributes. David-Levi Faur has offered us a comprehensive overview of the multidisciplinary field of regulation in his seminal book Handbook on the Politics of Regulation (2011), inviting us to consider how regulation’s meaning can change depending on the disciplinary field of employment. 

For instance, regulation has become a distinct field of international practice and research, especially after the introduction of the economic theory of regulation (Stigler, 1971). Certainly, the definition of regulation varies even among economic theorists: some argue that it acts as another weapon of neoliberalism against the welfare state (Majone, 1994), while others believe it to be an important tool to fuel competition (Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 3). 

In any case, the concept of regulation expands well beyond the theory of economy and covers the field of standard-setting, administration and, more broadly, the power of institutions. Some scholars have talked about the benefits of regulation against consumer exploitation, environmental misdoings and other activities in a rather pragmatistic way (Koop & Lodge, 2015; A. Marx, 2011). Moreover, one could not neglect adding to this long interdisciplinary list, the framing of regulation by social and political sciences as a means of control (Beresford, 2003; Levi-Faur, 2011, pp. 3, 16) that, among others, seeks to dictate a change in behaviour (Koop & Lodge, 2015). This also echoes Foucault’s position on power, as expressed in his notion of gouvernementalité, as a behaviour-changing principle (Foucault, 1982; C. Gordon, 1991; Gourgues et al., 2013). 

In addition, Levi-Faur frames regulation as “the ex-ante bureaucratic legalisation of prescriptive rules and the monitoring and enforcement of these rules by social, business, and political actors on other social, business, and political actors” (2011, p. 6; emphasis his). Consequently, this is a definition with a distinct organisational approach to regulation, while excluding the “legislative or judicial rule making” (ibid). In other words, Levi-Faur describes a co-regulatory framework, in which the state sets rules which are then monitored and enforced through the collaboration of social, business, and political actors.  

Elsewhere, Koop and Lodge frame regulation as following: “[it is the] intentional intervention in the activities of a target population, where the intervention is typically direct – involving binding standard-setting, monitoring, and sanctioning – and exercised by public-sector actors on the [activities] of private-sector actors” (Koop & Lodge, 2015, p. 106). The two definitions share the same characteristics concerning how regulation works (i.e., standard-setting instead of rule-making, monitoring and enforcement) and allow us to consider, on the one hand, the inscribed collaboration of regulation (i.e., multi-stakeholderism) and, on the other hand, its pre-emptive aspect to control behaviour. 

Furthermore, one other significant common point of the definitions is the development of targeted and binding rules, which Black purports – similar to what we saw earlier – aim to “change the behaviour of others […] through a combination of rules and norms” (Black, 2008, p. 139). As a result, we can further ontologically distinguish regulation according to its objectives. So, on the one part, there is regulation that serves the “public interest” (Hofmann et al., 2017, p. 1410; Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 28) and, on the other, regulation that “mainly serves private interests,” which some have called “deregulation” (Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 28).  

It is made, thus, visible that, often, the envisioned goal of regulation as beneficial to the public interest is by no means a given. It is hard to argue that all actors in a competing environment share the same values. This is why it is crucial to be critical of the terms we use to enquire platform power and solutions provided by state actors. Regulation is a heavily political mechanism that externalise a stakeholder’s ideology and power. It is, thus, itself a product of negotiations and power dynamics.  

It should be also noted that scholars of social media platforms have been approaching regulation with a “public-interest” approach, following the long tradition of media and journalism as a force that is able to promote public interest (Napoli, 2015; van Dijck et al., 2018). In other words, they argue that regulatory forces should strive to align platforms’ interests with the public good. Although we will further delve into the relationship between platforms and journalism in the third part, as we discussed in the previous chapter, platforms have been developed to capture as much of a market as possible in order to maximise their profits and satisfy their shareholders. It would be naïve to consider that regulation that is not accompanied by a structural transformation of markets would advance public interest in their fullest (Polanyi, 2001). This is true no matter how well intended such a regulatory force would be, mainly, due to the asymmetry of power that governs the relations between platforms and other stakeholders. 

Continuing our literature review, we infer that, regulation concerns primarily ex-ante standard-setting or rules, which makes it hard to estimate the actual range of consequences of applying such rules. Though, it may be possible to predict a regulation’s outcomes (e.g., what type of content will be deemed illegal or violating a platform’s policy) but its long-term effects on governance are unpredictable. To this end, some argue that one way of mitigating such risk is through multi-stakeholder governance structures (Black, 2008).  

Put simply, regulation that is developed by a single authority with specific results in mind is less flexible and, thus, less effective when dealing with ever-everchanging phenomena. As relevant literature attests, all governance structures include a multitude of different stakeholders deliberating regulatory frameworks, which has accelerated the decentralisation of state power, yet has exacerbated the complexity of governance regimes (Abbott & Snidal, 2009; Bernstein & Cashore, 2007; Büthe & Mattli, 2011; Levi-Faur, 2011; Majone, 1994). 

Furthermore, the actors most commonly found within these power structures are: state actors, non-state or market actors, and non-governmental or civil actors (Abbott & Snidal, 2009, pp. 8–10; Gorwa, 2019a, p. 2; Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 10). Accordingly, three types of regulation are most commonly met in the relevant literature: self-regulation, co-regulation, and top-down (or ‘command-and-control’) regulation (Gorwa, 2019b, p. 854; Hirsch, 2013; Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 531; Marsden, 2011, pp. 13–14): 

  • Self-regulation: This type of regulation refers primarily to non-state, “voluntary and ‘non-binding’” agreements and principles (Gorwa, 2019a) such as platforms’ “Terms of Services” (Bietti, 2020; Suzor, 2019) or self-organised industry groups, such as the “Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism” (Gorwa, 2019a). This type of regulation is by and large preferred by firms as it greatly reduces costs of implementing formal legislation (Bernhagen & Bräuninger, 2005, p. 46; Mattli & Woods, 2009, p. 8), which has also given way to the privatization of regulation (Büthe & Mattli, 2011). Moreover, this type of regulation has little legitimacy in polycentric regimes, as it is tied to a laissez-faire attitude (Bernstein & Cashore, 2007; Büthe & Mattli, 2011; Flew et al., 2021; Marsden, 2011), which often lacks accountability. Moreover, self-regulation seeks to consolidate an actor’s (or a cluster of actors) self-governance, that is their independence from a hierarchically higher authority to hold them to account. 
  • Co-regulation: This type of regulation primarily refers to the attempt of combining the ‘best’ of all three actors’ competencies, which Abbott and Snidal argue are: “interdependence, representativeness, expertise, and operational capacity” (2009, p. 66). We could argue that this type of regulation acts as the cornerstone of the multistakeholder model and is, thus, often depicted as essential to democratic representation and plurality (Black, 2008; Cammaerts & Mansell, 2019). However, actors have their own agenda, making contention unavoidable. A large number of scholars, policymakers and, recently, online platforms, are in favour of this type of regulation, also called as “soft-law” (Mattli & Woods, 2009, p. 1), because it “[opens up a] more interesting [conversation] than a static no-regulation versus state regulation binary choice” (Marsden, 2011, p. 242). Co-regulation seeks to consolidate a shared governance (co-governance) among stakeholders. However, this is rarely realised because of power asymmetries that offer great levels of resistance to power for certain actors (e.g., online platforms). Accountability here varies but, in most cases, it takes the shape of periodic transparency reports, audits, and repercussions, in cases, where notice from a regulatory authority is not followed by action. 
  • Top-down regulation: Last, self-regulation refers to state regulation, which is usually passed by public authorities in the form of official legislation or “hard rules” (Mattli & Woods, 2009, p. 1). They often directly intervene in an industry or a market. State regulation is usually critiqued as cumbersome and counterproductive, especially concerning innovation (Bostoen, 2018). However, it can work as the “baseline” (Gorwa, 2019a, p. 8) according to which other types of regulation are built, “either as complements to fill in certain gaps, or as substitutes to proposals perceived as overly invasive or harmful to human rights” (ibid). Its legitimacy can vary depending on the regulatory authority and the political state of affairs (e.g., democratic processes, political representation, etc.). Accountability is usually high in these systems because there are legal consequences to actors who do not abide by the state’s regulation, and it is the state’s responsible authorities that will hold to account an actor.  

Levi-Faur adds some nuance to the traditional typology: according to him, “pure self-regulation” (2011, p. 531) is a branch of “[hybrid] meta-regulation,” which refers to a confined role of the regulator to the “institutionalisation and monitoring” of standards and rules (2011, p. 11). He also adds another type of regulation, that of “[hybrid] multi-level regulation,” emphasising the geopolitical implications of regulators, where the “regulatory authority is allocated to different levels of territorial tiers” (ibid). While the latter may add an important nuance to critical analyses, the former rather complexifies the discussion and, as such, does not help us in clarifying regulation as a concept. In any case, by going through the above-mentioned typology of regulations, it can be made clear that the concept of regulation is inherently tied to the notion of governance. This is because, as was mentioned earlier, regulation is, in and of itself, an exercise of authority and power aiming to shape governmental structures (Kjaer & Vetterlein, 2018).  

As a result, many scholars have been increasingly treating regulation and governance almost synonymously (Hofmann et al., 2017), while some have adopted the term “regulatory governance” (Kjaer & Vetterlein, 2018), that is “governance through regulation” (2018, p. 499). However, it is not entirely sure as to the justification behind the development of the concept of “regulatory governance,” given that modern multi-stakeholder governance regimes implicitly involve structuring power relations through regulation – or its lack thereof. Nevertheless, Kjaer and Vetterlein provide a detailed and convincing account of the historical aspect of regulation as a governance praxis, which is in line with this dissertation’s framing. 

In the next section we will cover the concept of governance. We should though underline that regulation and governance are not synonymous; treating them as such “[strips regulation] of some analytical benefit” (Hofmann et al., 2017, p. 1420) and undermines potential regulatory frameworks, exactly because it restricts our theoretical understanding of volatile fields, like that of platform governance.  

As a result, this chapter is situated at the space between governance and regulation, following thus the political sciences’ turn to these concepts (Black, 2008; Braithwaite, 2011; Braithwaite et al., 2007). Perhaps, even more importantly, I reckon that this allow us to resituate the discussion around governance and broaden our analytical horizons. Consequently, by studying regulation in tandem with governance allows us to deepen our understanding of power relations in networked environments. 

  1. Governance 

As mentioned earlier, I approach the concept of governance as a bifold one: both as a concept used to describe the shift from one authoritative source of power (i.e., the state) to a multiplicity of stakeholders and as an analytical vehicle to analyse power relations of these stakeholders. Some argue that the root of governance can be traced back to the field of new institutional economics (Bulmer, 1998; Puppis, 2010, p. 135). Yet, I am most interested in its development by social and political scientists. As such, I understand governance as that politically charged notion that signifies “to govern” (Gorwa, 2019b, p. 2) and, specifically, to govern through regulation.  

Governance, in this sense, possesses the attribute of authority that is tied with power, more akin to a Foucauldian interpretation as “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate, and which constitute their own organization” (Foucault, 1978, p. 92). Therefore, governance does not only have to do with the power of state over the public, as Foucault argued (ibid), but expands to include the balance of relations within a structured or networked space. Put simply, the power in “power relations” which constitute governance, symbolises the interdependence, as well as the contentious interests among actors, which in turn, surface the “power plays” (Carr, 2015), that irradiate the political economy of a given field. Hence, power is, predominantly, a “property of the social [and political] relation” and it “resides implicitly in the other’s dependency” (Emerson, 1962, p. 32; emphasis theirs). Thus, when studying and discussing power relations, we are enquiring relations of (interconnected) dependencies (Foucault, 1982). 

What is more, governance, has been extensively studied in tandem with international relations, as the movement of globalisation claimed a significant part of governmental, that is, state power (Kjaer & Vetterlein, 2018, p. 500). In his paper on media governance, Puppis reviews relevant political science literature and suggests that exist two approaches to defining governance: a narrower and a broader (Puppis, 2010). According to the narrower approach, governance is framed as a complex and multi-layered network of power relations among various stakeholders, “creating the conditions for ordered rule and collective action” (Stoker, 1998, p. 17). Subsequently, the use of governance as a concept marks the shift from government “to a new process of governing” (Rhodes, 1996, pp. 652–653), where the state is restricted to “political steering” of “non-hierarchical” governance structures (Héritier, 2001, p. 2; Puppis, 2010, p. 137).  

Additionally, according to the broader approach, governance “[goes] beyond so-called new forms of regulation and [focuses] on collective coordination (emphasis theirs) in general” (Puppis, 2010, p. 137). Consequently, the broader approach to defining governance considers the role of the state and involves “a mix of governing efforts by public and private actors occurring at different levels and in different modes” (Kooiman, 2003, p. 3). As a result, in this approach, the state is replaced as the central authoritative node with “a multiplicity of governing and each other influencing actors” (Stoker, 1998, p.17) but still holds its “monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion” and regulatory intervention (Black, 2002; Puppis, 2010, p. 137). 

I argue that these two approaches are not oppositional one to another but rather highlight different aspects of governance. For instance, those who attempt to narrowly define governance as the new model of “governing without government” (Rhodes, 1996) may – inadvertently –  promulgate the neoliberal “minimal state” paradigm (Puppis, 2010, p. 137), in which the state is limited to a managerial position and several of its functions are outsourced to the private sector (Büthe & Mattli, 2011; Cohen, 2019a; Rhodes, 1996; Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992). As such, it seems that both approaches consider that governance signifies that “boundaries between and within public and private sectors have become blurred” (Stoker, 1998, p. 17), but differ primarily in assessing the state’s role. 

This is where the notion of “governmentality”, as framed by Foucault with regard to the broadly defined liberal political economy (Cohen, 2019a, p. 7; Foucault, 1991, p. 103), helps us to understand how governance is organised and exercised (Foucault, 1991, p. 7). It, basically, encapsulates all forms of regulation as the mechanism for enforcing, preserving and/or expanding governance. By extension, we could draw here an ontological parallel between this property of regulation and Foucault’s notion of government. Foucault argued that government refers to “the conduct of conduct” aiming to “shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons” (C. Gordon, 1991, p. 7). As such, it seems that there is a shared understanding among scholars studying regulation and governance that regulation’s primary objective is to alter the behaviour of a regulated entity (ibid, p. 5). 

As hinted earlier, non-state actors have been increasingly taking up roles and responsibilities that were once exclusively held by the state, which has been progressively limited to a “regulatory state” (Braithwaite, 2011), which has born what some scholars have labelled “regulatory capitalism” (Braithwaite, 2008). Ever since the 1970s, with the post-World War II Keynesian policies gradually fading in the Western world and the domination of neoliberalism (Carr, 2015, p. 643; Foucault, 1991) state power was distributed to various non-state actors (Mazzucato, 2014). This led to the development of the current “networked governance” landscape (Braithwaite et al., 2007; Drahos & Krygier, 2017), which does not easily allow for top-down regulation, nor a traditional distinction between private and public actors.  

To summarise, the definition of governance is constructed in two interrelated ways: governance as structure and governance as power. The former refers to governance as a complex networked structure that accommodates different stakeholders that are connected and coordinated through various types of regulations, norms and practices, whereas the latter refers to governance as a politically charged notion that allow for power relations among governance stakeholders to formulate, primarily, through regulations. What is more, these two approaches hold different analytical purposes: the former is used to conceptualise governance structures based on its outcomes (e.g., think of Abbott and Snidal’s “Governance Triangle”), whereas the latter is used as a way to study the procedures that form the stakeholders’ power relations (e.g., how a regulation was formed). 

  1. Regulation, governance, and multi-stakeholderism 

As mentioned earlier, regulation and governance have recently emerged as an interdisciplinary field of scholarship which, as a founding principle, seeks to inform regulatory and law studies with the concept of governance (Braithwaite et al., 2007). This is pursued by inviting scholars to study regulation in relation to its political and societal impact and, thus, steering us away from a narrower understanding of regulation as policymaking (Koop & Lodge, 2015, p. 105). By examining regulation in relation to governance, we position ourselves at a better spot to study the multistakeholder governance environments in which regulation is shaped and applied. These are environments which are characterised by “fragmentation, complexity and interdependence between actors, in which state and non-state actors are both regulators and regulated” (Black, 2008; Koop & Lodge, 2015, p. 1). 

As a result, these multi-stakeholder environments are contentious fora, where power relations among actors surface the interdependence of one another, while shaping the governing status quo, which is “most likely to promote their own interests” (Carr, 2015, p. 645). Moreover, this situation also reinforces the “radical pluralist” (Cammaerts & Mansell, 2019) criticism of the purported “marketplace of ideas” (Brietzke, 1997), inasmuch as the “bargaining” or “regulatory game” (Abbott & Snidal, 2009, p. 48; Levi-Faur, 2011, p. 11) among stakeholders does not necessarily promote legitimacy and fairness but, instead, perpetuates existing power relations.  

However, as discussed earlier, this assertion can fall short as, more often than not, power asymmetries are not mitigated but actually reinforced. Indeed, a reimagination of the way in which we study multi-stakeholderism is needed. Interestingly, the term “multistakeholder” first emerged in the 1990s and was officially used in the context of the internet with the establishment of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) (Hofmann, 2020, p. 256; Palladino & Santaniello, 2021). In any case, as Carr acutely put it, “[the] more we understand about the opportunities and weaknesses of governance models for the internet (or anything else) the better equipped we are to effectively refine and amend those practices, functions and roles that comprise it” (Carr, 2015, p. 643). 

Thus, to study platform governance and, subsequently, platform regulation, we also ought to define two core elements that are often at the heart of regulatory frameworks: legitimacy and accountability (Carr, 2015, p. 142). By assessing a governance regime’s legitimacy and accountability, along with its constituents’ efforts to reify these two fundamental elements, we can infer critical results of that regime’s status quo and power relations. 

Accountability is defined as “a particular type of relationship between different actors in which one gives account and another has the power or authority to impose consequences as a result” (Carr, 2015, p. 150). However, Black purports that it is increasingly difficult to define who is to be held accountable at a given point in time, precisely due to the increased fragmentation of power (2008, p. 139). Black structures her argumentation in relation to the regime’s accountability around a trilemma: if something goes wrong, do we hold to account a single regulator (“one for all”) or each decentralised regulator (“all for one”) or each actor individually (“each for itself”; Black, 2008, p. 143)? Her position is somewhat of a hybrid, arguing that: “in order to assess the accountability of a regulatory regime […] the focus has to be on holding the outcomes of a regime as a whole accountable” (2008, p. 157). 

In other words, within a polycentric regime, we should be able to hold to account both each actor individually, as well as the regime collectively, to assess the effectiveness of regulation – or its lack thereof. Black’s approach, then, shows us how to better understand power relations among stakeholders, along with their “institutional embeddedness” (2008, p. 157). The way I understand this is that, for instance, in cases where a regulatory authority fails to hold to account a platform for violating a law (e.g., with a fine), we ought to be critical with regard to how the regulatory authority can also be held to account. In other words, if one stakeholder is not held to account for disrupting the system’s governance, then the whole system, including its constituent stakeholders, is accountable for letting this happen. 

Additionally, legitimacy is defined as a social construct, providing an actor with “social credibility and acceptability” (Black, 2008, p. 144). Santaniello and Palladino offer a valuable historical overview of the scholarship around legitimacy and, specifically, talk about two perspectives of legitimacy: a normative and a descriptive (2021, p. 31). They argue that the former, effectively, looks at an actor’s “values and principles”, which supports its “right to rule” (i.e., rule-makers), whereas the latter examines the “audiences and their reasons to believe that an authority is appropriate” (i.e., rule-takers; ibid). Therefore, legitimacy is essentially an expansion or evidence of power and, thus, the key to assuming authority in a governance regime. 

Provided that the internet is inherently tied to the concept of multi-stakeholderism, gauging legitimacy, as with accountability, is tremendously difficult (DeNardis, 2010). There is no single one authority that rules the internet. As a result, many scholars have argued that legitimacy in these environments is primarily related to the participation of a plethora of actors (Haggart & Keller, 2021; Palladino & Santaniello, 2021, p. 32; Suzor et al., 2018)/ Consequently, a governance regime’s legitimacy depends on its openness and inclusiveness, so that “all the categories of actors affected by a particular issue were involved in the decision-making process” (Santaniello & Palladino, 2021, p. 33). 

Carr is one of the most critical voices in relevant literature concerning multi-stakeholderism. She essentially criticises what could be called a Habermasian viewpoint on normality based on rationality and consensus (Cammaerts & Mansell, 2019; Davis, 2020). She criticises normative claims of “what the Internet ‘should be’” (Carr, 2015, p. 642) for concealing their own agenda behind “widely resonant norms like ‘privacy’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’” (2015, p. 642). In addition, she also blasts the lack of critical analysis of “multi-stakeholderism,” which she believes has “become almost synonymous with global Internet governance” (2015, p. 641). Ultimately, Carr suggests that this normative interpretation leaves little space for the expression of alternative views, as they are quickly shunned as opposition to those norms (2015, p. 641). She believes that the polycentric model has been so institutionally embedded, that it almost feels shielded by terms with “a strong normative component” such as “democracy promotion” or “Internet freedom” (2015, p. 641). 

This theoretical approach comes with its own restrictions and biases. Carr’s take on the internet as “a mechanism for the projection of power” (2015, p. 643) feels like a one-dimensional bashing on United States’ global interests in a post-Snowden world (2015, p. 656). However, this should not reduce the argumentative power of her claim that, while the polycentric regime has been beneficial to the internet’s growth (2015, p. 649), it has also been reinforcing and privileging existing power relations despite an ostensible decentralisation of power. As a result, she feels that there has not been enough space for critical voices to be heard, going as far as to suggest that “multi-stakeholderism [has] become a ‘rhetorical exercise aimed at neutralising criticism’ rather than a truly unique and participatory mechanism for governing a global resource” (2015, p. 642). 

Furthermore, she identifies three major stakeholders within this regime: government, private sector, and civil society. There seems to be a recurring triadic model within regulation and governance studies. Abbott and Snidal have conceptualised this as a “governance triangle” (2009), which acts as a “heuristic device to structure analysis of widely varying forms of governance” (2009, p. 52). According to the authors, this triangle consists of various zones, depending on the number of stakeholders involved in the deliberations, and each zone has a unique or mixed regulatory framework. Similarly, they also group actors in the same fashion as mentioned earlier: states, firms, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). 

However, we would be remiss not to highlight the consequences of discussing governance structures that refer only to these three actors: it normalises and reinforces a governance imaginary, where outsiders are excluded of the balance and, thus, risks replicating power imbalances and a quasi-elitist power structure. Additionally, the dynamics produced among these actors are contentious, which the authors often describe as “[a] transnational arena” or “bargaining game” (Abbott & Snidal, 2009, p. 48), painting a picture of struggle for domination. Again, this reminisces an idealised exchange of rational arguments that should lead to a logical consensus (Habermas, 1992), whereby polycentric contention is framed as benign, constructing consensus, legitimacy (Black, 2008) and fairness. 

Yet, Carr argues, such an interpretation neutralises attempts to further politicise the discussion in regard to polycentricity, even if “[it celebrates] the inherently conflictual nature of ‘the political’” (Cammaerts & Mansell, 2019, p. 5). The primary reason for this critique is that there are deep asymmetries in the relations that shape multi-stakeholderism and, as such, there cannot exist a fair exchange of ideas. Similarly, Cammaerts and Mansell call for a “radical turn” to pluralism, one that will have the “generative discursive power to render visible asymmetries and biases” of governance structures and, specifically, platform governance (2019, p. 15), with which I am sympathetic. Therefore, I argue that, on the one hand, we ought to further theorise about multi-stakeholderism instead of taking its dominance as the ‘natural order of things’ and, on the other, that we must expand our analytical and conceptual models of governance to account for latent asymmetries, inequalities, and biases.  

  1. Internet and platform governance 
  1. Internet Governance 

Before proceeding with a proposal to start reconceptualising platform governance, I would like to provide a brief historical overview of the term’s deployment in relation to internet studies. The term “internet governance” dates to the years after the commercial internet’s birth, circa mid 1990s. As Brousseau et al., note, one of the earliest uses of internet governance “as a tentative political construct” (2012, p. 2) was observed in the 1998 International Telecommunication conference. The reason the authors label it as a political construct is because, up until that point, the term “internet governance,” was mostly related to technical issues of the internet, albeit a not well-known one. It was during that time that a specific socio-political agenda was also identified, along with its surrounding stakeholders (Brousseau et al., 2012, p. 4). Certainly, even within those fora, actors could not entirely agree on the exact nature of participating stakeholders. Brousseau et al., paint a picture of a dichotomy between the “technical community,” who were defensive of the internet’s principles and values that would be ensured by self-regulating institutions and the “civil society,” that identified social actors and “commonly defined rules” outside the strict “Internet community” as crucial (Brousseau et al., 2012, p. 4). 

A few years later, in 2006, the United Nations (UN) founded the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This marked a new era for internet researchers and, largely, the internet’s modus operandi (Hofmann et al., 2016, p. 3). The IGF provided us with the first formal definition of internet governance: “Internet governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet” (de Bossey, 2005). 

This multi-stakeholder framing has truly been the cornerstone of internet research ever since. It should be noted, though, that this does not confine the framing of internet governance to the infrastructural or computational aspect of the internet (ten Oever, 2020, p. 27) but expands it to account for the broader stakes that are at play, like the internet’s “private ordering” (DeNardis, 2010). As a result, I am mainly interested in exploring the “manifestations of power and political values” (Hofmann et al., 2016, p. 4) of participating actors colliding one with another, co-shaping governance. 

The rise and consolidation of online platforms as dominant  infomediaries (Smyrnaios & Rebillard, 2019) has posed an existential threat to the internet governance. Online private platforms became ubiquitous and expanded their services to a myriad different instances, creating centralised networks of data at an unprecedented scale; scholars have named this phenomenon the “platformisation” of the web and, even, society (Helmond, 2015; van Dijck et al., 2018). No other construct better illustrates these existential stakes than the aforementioned notion of “platform governance” (Gorwa, 2019b; Haggart, 2020), which encapsules the processes that shape the rules, norms and policies that govern platforms.  

While the vast majority of these processes are part of the more traditional multi-stakeholder procedures that were established by the internet governance, platforms have been developing strong self-governance structures (e.g., Facebook’s Oversight Board) or even co-governance structures (e.g., European Commission’s Codes of Conduct). Moreover, due to the web’s platformisation, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that for a large part of the global population, private social media platforms are essentially the internet (Couldry & Mejias, 2019a). So, as mentioned earlier, we ought to be wary of the risk of conflating the internet with platforms, which is often fuelled up by platforms8, but also policymakers and users. 

As a result, this thesis will try to challenge that view and avoid the pitfall of treating platform governance as an entirely different governance structure from that of the internet governance, but rather an interrelated subfield. At the same time, this thesis acknowledges the analytical benefits of the platform governance as a conceptual model, in the same vein that Puppis proposed media governance as a concept with “heuristic value” (Puppis, 2010). So, in this dissertation, platform governance has a bifold purpose: on the one hand, to provide an institutional understanding of the governance structure within which platforms exist and, on the other, to provide an analytical conceptual model for “describing, explaining, and criticising [platform] policy and regulation” (Puppis, 2010, p. 144). 

  1. Platform Governance  

More recently, a discussion concerning a new chapter in the multi-stakeholder internet governance model has emerged, that of that of online content regulation (Douek, 2019) within what we call “platform governance” (Gorwa, 2019b; Owen, 2019). A satisfactory definition of platform governance is given by Gorwa as “an approach necessitating an understanding of technical systems (platforms) and an appreciation for the inherently global arena within which these platform companies function” (Gorwa, 2019b, p. 5). So, platform governance entails the study of governance of platforms (i.e., how platforms participate in multi-stakeholder governance structures and how regulation is developed by these structures and applied to platforms), as well as by platforms (i.e., how platforms themselves govern their spaces through self-regulating mechanisms like Community Guidelines; Gillespie, 2018b). In addition, as noted earlier, scholars have also been studying the concept of governance through platforms (Agarwal, 2022), whereby state actors instrumentalise platforms to extend their power, enforce government policies and, even, stifle freedoms. 

However, this definition principally addresses the so-called “Big Tech” platform companies (also called GAFAM: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), perpetuating thus a narrow understanding of the modern internet as a space occupied by a handful of oligopolistic firms, which leaves little space to “reimagine the internet” (Zuckerman, 2020) and reinforces the idea that recent regulation is primarily shaped around “Big Tech” companies, which replicates existing power asymmetries (Carr, 2015).  

Even though this may very well be true, we ought to be critical of the rhetorical constructs we choose to build our conceptual work. As a result, we should approach platform governance as distinct from the broader internet governance structure or, perhaps, as a sub-field; it is important not to conflate the internet with private platforms, as that would narrow our perspective in a rather platform deterministic fashion (Caplan et al., 2020). 

Nevertheless, platform governance holds significant value both on a conceptual and on a practical level: the former as a means to think of the ways in which stakeholders pertaining to private platform companies participate in shaping governance and regulation, while the latter to gauge and study the various agreements or collaborations forged and shaped among stakeholders. In that sense, platform governance helps us to demarcate the field, as well as the object of inquiry and, thus, serves as a useful analytical lens to study governance structures that involve platforms. 

 Furthermore, the present platform governance status quo seems to be shifting away from self-regulatory frameworks to complicated collaborative ones (Gorwa, 2019b; Hirsch, 2013). We reckon that the main reason behind this shift is the wish of private actors with strong “opinion power” (Helberger, 2020) to ensure public legitimacy and fend off public intervention, thus, ensuring self-governance, that is, the ability to function independently of public audit and accountability. Moreover, as Evelyn Douek sharply notes, “platforms […] [play] catch-up to societal demands for more responsible content moderation through self-regulatory innovations and reforms” (Douek, 2020, p. 4). 

For instance, when Facebook publishes guidelines on online content regulation, this should be seen as a move to formalise their content moderation processes by welcoming collaborations with other stakeholders and, thus, mitigating part of their responsibilities. However, a problem that quickly arises with this approach, and which Natali Helberger hints at with the “opinion power” concept (2020), is that it obscures or, at least, downplays the governance conflicts. Where internet governance was imagined to be a self-governed and self-regulated space, platform governance is imagined as a space of co-governance and co-regulation. Inviting co-governance and, consequently, co-regulation is, of course, not reproachable, quite the contrary; Douek believes that public regulation can make systems of content regulation “more accountable and credible” (2020, p. 59). Still, we should see such invitations as part of their communication strategies aimed at building legitimacy and affecting accountability (Black, 2008, p. 151). 

  1. Towards a Reconceptualisation of Platform Governance 

The aforementioned realisations have moved us away from the “techno-optimist” early years of “Web 2.0,” which were characterised by a lack of regulation, which played a key role in enabling the growth and domination of many digital companies, as well as the rise of platform capitalism (Srnicek, 2017). As critical media scholar José van Dijck has observed, in the early years of the “platform revolution,” there was a surge, even within academic circles, of the conviction “that networked technologies [could] offer sufficient leverage” to previously ‘passive’ recipients “to renegotiate their relationships” with then-dominant gatekeepers, like media companies (van Dijck, 2009, p. 43).  

Likewise, in the field of social and political sciences, scholars have talked about how global commercial online technologies may constitute a new structural transformation of the way in which our public spheres are shaped (Seeliger & Sevignani, 2022); what role private social media platforms may play in creating social silos (Habermas, 2022), or in appropriating citizens’ participation in socio-political deliberations for profit (Staab & Thiel, 2022). Others have argued that such capacities may be employed to foster “deliberative e-rulemaking,” i.e., “the development of [a] law-making environment online which enables and facilitates public participation” (Deligiaouri & Suiter, 2020, p. 4).  

As Flew et al. have argued, an expansion of the way in which we study power relations of platform governance should account for “the shifting alliances across categories and also the heterogeneity of interests within them” (Flew et al., 2021, p. 134). As such, it might be that scholars, arguing in favour of a “reimagination” of platform governance, are pushing for a politicisation of the field by adopting more critical and radical approaches. In this sense, the discussion of whom exactly we talk about when we talk about stakeholders is a difficult yet necessary to have.  

For instance, it is often taken for granted that citizens are represented by civil society organisations in governance deliberations (Kohler-Koch, 2010, p. 107; Regilme, 2018). However, “civil society guarantees only the existence of a public, not public consensus” (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p. 229). Thus, with the capacities given by online technologies, as well as by the Commission’s strategy to integrate a varied gamut of public input, citizens can now directly participate in deliberations and provide feedback. For example, Meta’s Oversight Board also welcomes public comments for their cases (Wong & Floridi, 2022, p. 2), while Twitter’s “Community Notes”9 project invites “contributors collaboratively add context to potentially misleading Tweets”10. The European Commission tried to do this too with the adoption of its “Better Regulation Agenda” in 2015 to increase the range of stakeholders participating in governance deliberations and, particularly, amplify the role of civil society (Deligiaouri & Suiter, 2020); we will examine this in more depth in Case Study #1. 

These examples demonstrate that platform governance stakeholders, platforms themselves in these instances, experiment with public participation in their decision-making processes. Therefore, while macroscopic approaches to (platform) governance are indeed useful because they facilitate theory-building, I contend that we should also investigate instances of public participation that may shed light on citizens’ role in governance processes, as well as on the impact that these experiments may have. 

It is true that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish actors’ interests in governance deliberations; for instance, private actors, ranging from news media organisations to platforms, have competing interests that are difficult to be accounted for within the governance triangle model. As we have seen, relevant scholarship has attempted to identify these stakeholders based on concepts borrowed from political science and international relations studies, as well as by analysing the products (e.g., regulatory frameworks) of these power relations (Papaevangelou 2021).  

Specifically, Gorwa, following the political science tradition, has suggested to study platform stakeholders’ relations through their outcomes (i.e., regulations or agreements). To that end, he suggests exploring these products using the “platform governance triangle” (Gorwa, 2019a), which is a re-contextualisation of Abbott and Snidal’s governance triangle, in which each corner represents a stakeholder: NGO, state, and firm (Figure 1). Gorwa also offers a rather comprehensive view of different platform regulations that indicate governance relationships among stakeholders. 

As a result, though the “governance triangle” lens is indeed useful in identifying the overarching actors at play (public, private, and NGOs), it would benefit from a reiteration. As governance regimes are becoming increasingly complex, so does the need for a more nuanced approach to identifying participating stakeholders. For example, Flew et al., criticise Gorwa’s triangle as not allowing us to conceive “inter-capitalist interests” (Flew et al., 2021, p. 129) following the recent Australian “News Media Bargaining Code” (NMBC) that would require Facebook and Google “to collectively negotiate with commercial news publishers for payment for the use of the news content they carry” (2021, p. 128) . 

Figure 1 – Robert Gorwa’s formulation of the ‘Platform Governance Triangle’ depicting the EU content regulation landscape (Gorwa, 2019a, p. 7) 

Additionally, it is often implied that platform governance can promote an inclusive and participatory environment, given that it is a system of de facto networked governance and, thus, there is a constant interplay of state and non-state (Drahos & Krygier, 2017, p. 15), as well as of human and non-human actors. So, while the governance triangle serves as a valuable conceptual model of pinpointing stakeholders, it restrains us from having a more nuanced picture. However, it should be mentioned that Gorwa’s re-framing of the triangle to illustrate the European content regulation landscape (Gorwa, 2019a, p. 7) adds some nuance concerning the stakeholders’ relations concerning online platforms’ regulation. Nonetheless, I argue that there are some stakeholders that are difficult to group together and that clustering them solely based on a ‘spatial’ manner (i.e., where they stand in the governance triangle) does not do justice to their unique nature.  

Furthermore, in a more recent essay, Gorwa attempted to further clarify and expound on his previous work by defining stakeholders as “actors with a stake in the processes of platform governance” without “necessarily [acting] on it [as] all individuals affected (or governed) by the outcome of a policy process are stakeholders” (Gorwa, 2022, p. 8). He also suggested a more nuanced typology of possible stakeholders who may appear in platform governance processes, ranging from “industry associations” to “ordinary users” (Gorwa, 2022, p. 10). Additionally, he highlighted that “key stakeholders [will] vary across platform policy issue areas” (Gorwa, 2022, p. 14; emphasis his), echoing what others have said about how grouping stakeholders based on their interests and power relations can shed light on how regulations are developed (Papaevangelou 2021, p. 10).  

At the same time, the research agenda of platform governance is constantly negotiated among the scholarly community, with many academics pushing for its “reimagination” despite its relative novelty. For instance, some scholars have warned against adopting a privileged platform deterministic perspective, which “[risks fetishising] a Western legal and policy focus” (Solomun, 2021), while others have underlined the need for the community to engage with understudied phenomena relating to platform governance and platform power, like sexual expression online (Tiidenberg, 2021).  

Following the attempt to reimagine platform governance (Suzor, 2020), I suggest that this is possible and should be pursued even on an epistemological level. Therefore, I propose the expansion of the platform governance triangle (Gorwa, 2019a) so as to account for “the shifting allegiances across categories and also the heterogeneity of interests within them” (Flew et al., 2021, p. 134). In particular, I recommend we started studying clusters of stakeholders through their relations (procedural approach to governance) and not only based on their institutional profile (normative/outcomes-oriented approach). As noted earlier, I reckon that this is in line with the broader attempt of the scholarly community engaging with platform governance to further theorise about the field in a more critical and radical way. 

As a result, I reckon that a more suitable concept would be that of “governance clusters” (Figure 2) which are comprised of actors sharing some common fundamental principles and interests. The governance clusters presented in the formulation below is merely an operationalisation of the governance triangle to account for subtle nuances that exist within modern governance structures. I do not propose to abolish the traditional model of triangle but rather operationalise it to accommodate more complicated arrangements. Also, this figure illustrates a platform governance structure within the context of the news industry; so, asymmetries and biases exist in this illustration as well. Also, other instances of platform governance, like data or Artificial Intelligence (AI) governance, are not accounted for here but could be explored if adjusted accordingly. It should also be noted that the clusters’ size does not represent their importance or power. 

Moreover, this approach takes into consideration the bifold quality of governance as structure and as power that was explained earlier: that is, it allows us to map relevant stakeholders that are not easily identifiable in the triadic model, as well as to analyse the power relations of stakeholders – and their power dependencies. Consequently, it considers both the organisational or regulatory arrangements among stakeholders and the procedures that underpin these arrangements.  

Since this dissertation is focused on studying the political economy of platform regulation and governance with a distinct interest in the EU, as well as in the impact of governance of and by platforms on the relationship between news media organisations and platforms, I discerned a unique constellation of power dependencies. As a matter of fact, I based the construction of my corpus on this clustering of governance stakeholders (i.e., to select expert interviews and to develop my case studies). I would like, thus, to briefly expound on each stakeholder: 

  1. Online Platforms: These refer to online, socio-technical platforms of infomediation (Siapera, 2013; van Dijck et al., 2018) like social media platforms or search engines. In this dissertation, I primarily study platforms that host, curate and disseminate content online (Gillespie, 2018a) and no other types of platforms, like data brokers or advertisers. 
  1. Public authorities: These refer to public actors, like governmental, national, or supranational organisations, who are either elected or appointed by elected officials, with the authority to pass regulations, policies or legislation. In this dissertation, I am mostly interested in European institutions, like the European Commission. 
  1. Civil Society Organisations: Tjahja, et al. (2021) have provided us with an illuminating discussion and typology of what civil society means in a modern multi-stakeholder governance network, namely that of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), highlighting the contested nature of the concept. One of the most important elements is their framing of civil society organisations as “intermediaries” advocating for their “communities’ interests” (Tjahja, et al., 2021, p. 3). In this dissertation, civil society organisations mainly refer to organisations that engage in advocating for citizens and users’ digital rights, trying to hold to account both public authorities and social media. In Chapter 4 (Case Study #1), I touch upon the notion of civil society from a sociological perspective as well. 
  1. News media organisations: These refer, primarily, to news organisations that play an active role in shaping the regulatory agenda of online content. Platforms might argue that news’ revenue is “minimal” (William, 2021) but their role in platform governance is crucial (Napoli, 2015; Smyrnaios & Rebillard, 2019) because, among others, they make platforms nodes of public interest, where information is centralised (Helmond, 2015). Additionally, ever since the consolidation of online platforms, news organisations have been trying to stay afloat and retain or increase their visibility (Interview #18). In this dissertation, I analyse, through various case studies, the relation between platforms and news media organisations as a critical factor that shapes regulation. 
  1. Citizens/users: These are theoretically represented in governance deliberations taking place in public sphere(s) by civil society organisations (Habermas, 1989; Kohler-Koch, 2010; Regilme, 2018). Yet, I believe that this is more of a hypothesis rather than an axiom. In other words, representation in modern networked governance (Caplan, 2022) is far from certain and, thus, public consensus could be nothing more than wishful thinking (Flyvbjerg, 1998, pp. 214, 229). What is more, in modern deliberations, we see citizens participating individually and directly, for instance through the European Commission’s public consultations. Additionally, there are platforms, like Wikipedia or Reddit, that rely on their users to co-govern their content (Wagner et al., 2021). Moreover, consider how social media influencers and content creators are integral to platforms’ economy; yet, their role as governance stakeholders, along with the way that platforms treat them, has been understudied (Caplan & Gillespie, 2020). So, in complex governance arrangements, I believe we must take into account citizens, as well as users distinctly. In this dissertation, I focus on citizens’ role in platform governance and, specifically, their input to the Commission’s public consultations (Case Study #1). 
  1. Industry associations: Here, I primarily refer to industry associations, think tanks or lobby groups, that work to advance their respective industry’s interests. I propose to examine them separately from civil society organisations because they do not work in favour of the public interest but, rather, private interests (Napoli, 2019). Their role has been upgraded in multistakeholder governance structures, as they are able to lobby in regulated and enabling environments, as we will see in the next section. In this dissertation, I primarily enquired industry associations representing the interests of news media organisations and publishers, while taking into consideration advocacy material published by similar groups representing online platforms in the EU. 
  1. Experts/think tanks: These, mainly, refer to research-oriented or highly expert individuals or non-profit organisations, which produce reports for commissioned by other stakeholders and, thus, contribute viscerally to shaping regulation. Their role is tethered to the prominent role that evidences and evidence-based policymaking have obtained in multistakeholder structures, like the EU. Certainly, experts are not the same as think tanks, in the sense that the latter might have specific agendas to advance and may have more resources to do so – often from eyebrow-raising funders. Indeed, experts might be individuals who are invited to advise policymakers on complicated matters. For instance, one of my interviewees is a researcher at the University of Amsterdam who participated in an expert working group to help EU policymakers understand how platform economies work (Interview #7). Nevertheless, they are presented here as one cluster, primarily, due to their expertise, but their distinct characteristics and interests are pointed out.  

Figure 2 – Operational model to study platform governance within the context of the news industry 

  1. Lobbying and structural dependencies in platform governance 

In addition to the above, I believe that scholars wishing to study platform governance in a more critical way should also be scrutinising lobbying processes that take part in deliberations concerning regulation. While this dissertation does not explicitly enquire instances of lobbying within the EU or elsewhere, it takes them into consideration to provide a more holistic account of the developed regulatory frameworks and the broader landscape of platform governance.  

Traditionally, businesses “aim to secure [favourable] political outcomes by lobbying” which refers to “influencing the formation of public policy, its passage through legislature and its implementation by means of containing and [pressurising] policymakers (Bernhagen & Bräuninger, 2005, pp. 44–45; Richardson, 1993, pp. 1–2). Scholars have been studying lobbying to understand how corporate interests have been attempting to influence public opinion and the “networks encompassing economic and political elites” (Bernhagen & Bräuninger, 2005, p. 45; Rhodes & Marsh, 1992).  

Another relevant concept is that of revolving doors, which is “defined as such when the heads of state agencies, after completing their bureaucratic terms, enter the very sector they have regulated” (Brezis & Cariolle, 2019, p. 1). As Brezis and Cariolle note in their study about the effects of this situation in the financial sector, “the revolving door could be a convenient vehicle for corrupt deals, leading to lenient regulations, and in turn to public resource misallocation” (Brezis & Cariolle, 2019, p. 2). Pons-Hernández argues that revolving doors is a phenomenon that “emanates from an architecture of power in which power remains within the same social elites, guaranteeing the protection of individual and industry interests” (2022, p. 315) and, thus, “are an essential feature of the structure of contemporary capitalism, in which industries permeate public policymaking” (Pons-Hernández, 2022, p. 316).  

A recent report concerning the EU, for example, found that, despite the existence of a framework to ensure that these movements are regulated and restricted, “around three quarters of all Google and Meta lobbyists (those that either hold or held European Parliament accreditation) have formerly worked for a governmental body at the EU or member state level” (Lobby Control, 2022). So, when the Australian government following the report of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), passed a bill that would force leading platforms Google and Facebook to negotiate with news publishers for news content hosted by their services, it was seen as an intervention to the platform governance’s status quo. Platforms’ reactions, especially from Facebook, was so strong, which resulted in blocking even governmental agencies that were informing the public regarding the development of the coronavirus pandemic and, thus, involving citizens to the governance deliberations, even if indirectly. This could be why the Australian government agreed to some amendments demanded by platforms.  

Moreover, civil society groups and opinion shapers participated in the consultations held by the ACCC (Flew, et al., 2021), albeit the former in a rather restrained way (ibid, p. 128). It worth merits that the stakeholder analysis proposed by Flew and Lim (2019, pp. 541-574) suits great the operationalisation proposed here to study governance deliberations and power relations. Last, news media, apart from being directly involved in the deliberations, used their own means to sway public discourse, while large legacy media organisations were negotiating other financial deals directly with platforms. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the proposed operationalisation allows to account for inter-stakeholder competing interests: for instance, smaller Australian news media organisations voiced their concerns over the Code’s advantageous position that it gives to large corporate publishers at the expense of smaller players. Concluding, this short example sought to emphasise how increasingly complicated governance structures are becoming, as well as to illustrate how, by expanding our understanding of stakeholders, we can better study governance procedures. 

Marxist scholars have diachronically purported that lobbying and subsequent “pro-business policy bias” (Bernhagen & Bräuninger, 2005, p. 45) are part and parcel of capitalist democracies, where states and, indeed, the “entire society” are structurally depended  “on the willingness of capitalists to continue to invest” (Przeworski & Wallerstein, 1988, p. 12; Swank, 1992, p. 38). Essentially, this thesis asserts that business or market elites enjoy a “privileged position” in the political system (Lindblom, 2001, p. 246) to influence policymaking through their “investment decisions” (Swank, 1992, p. 38).  

Furthermore, a more updated take on the theory of “structural dependence” (Przeworski & Wallerstein, 1988) stipulates that vested interests have also “informational advantages vis-à-vis policymakers due to the latter’s capacity constraints, and because of interest groups’ own strong incentives to pool resources and routinely conduct research on issues of concern to their members” (Bernhagen and Bräuninger, 2005, p. 47). This informational asymmetry also allows lobbyists to “to misrepresent the size and likelihood of a policy’s negative inducement effects” (Bernhagen and Bräuninger, 2005, p. 47). As a result, Bernhagen and Bräuninger conclude, we end up with a “signaling game” in which lobbyists “‘[remind]’ [policymakers] that [they are] structurally dependent on business” while policymakers do not have access to data or information to assess whether a proposed policy would induce the consequences that business lobbyists claim to (2005, p. 48).  

Hence, their structural dependence is reinforced through this informational asymmetry, as “regulators need information about the activities of, and costs and benefits for, individuals and firms” (Beyers & Arras, 2020, p. 575). However, in that same study, Bernhagen and Bräuninger assert, that “policymakers sometimes have more maneuver than they believe they do” because “business sometime has little choice but to back down and bear the costs of policy for the sake of preserving its good reputation” (2005, p. 57). Yet, this stronger capacity to govern more decisively is contingent on the policymakers’ capacity to break loose from their dependency to obtain information from those that they are supposed to regulate (Bernhagen and Bräuninger, 2005, p. 59). However, it is increasingly difficult to consider an assertive, democratic regulatory force in the current neoliberal framework, where “market rules and practices” and “managerial oversight” are employed in the “framing of regulation” (Cohen, 2019a, pp. 140–141; Grabher & König, 2020, p. 108). 

This has given birth to a “neoliberal governmentality,” which champions “efficiency of lean and nimble production” (Cohen, 2019a, p. 145), “is “procedurally informal, mediated by networks of professional and technical expertise that define relevant standards, heavily reliant on privatization and automation strategies, and opaque to external observers” (Cohen, 2019b, pp. 243–244). Hence, Cohen argues that, “different institutional configurations [are prevented] from emerging” (Cohen, 2019b, p. 244) due to the ubiquitous platform companies that dominate our public spheres (Seeliger & Sevignani, 2022; Srnicek, 2017). Additionally, because of the structural dependencies noted earlier and, particularly, the “highly [informationalised] processes” which “requires [capable] governance institutions” make, in fact, “governance processes more opaque and less accountable” (Cohen 2019a, p. 234).  

So, it would be myopic to contend that, if there was an informational equilibrium then policymaking would become more effective. Indeed, it would most likely empower policymakers to try and create better regulated markets, but the underlying capitalist structure would remain unscathed. This is also because markets are “objects of ongoing political contestations” and, thus, consist of “a complex alchemy of political, social, institutional, and technological ingredients” (Grabher & König, 2020, pp. 95, 97) This structure, then, is what drives the “runaway [marketisation]” (Fraser, 2017, p. 10; emphasis theirs) of many “societal spheres” (Grabher & König, 2020, p. 96) and which embeds social and political relations in the market (Polanyi, 2001). Moreover, this marketisation is essentially “[normalised] through technological mediation” that “[naturalise] and entrench extractive market logics based on exchange and efficiency” (Delanty & Harris, 2021, p. 104).  

As such, regulation or policymaking in an informational equilibrium would not bring about the kind of structural transformation needed, even if it would be an undoubtedly positive development. Indeed, “the turn toward technocracy in transnational governance,” as Cohen contends, “exacerbates the problem of public impenetrability” (2019a, p. 234) making stakeholders constituting “expert networks” (Cohen 2019a, p. 234) or “market elites” (Lindblom, 2001) more “opaque, arcane, and self-reinforcing” (Cohen, 2019a, p. 234). As a result, scholars engaging with platform governance should turn their attention to and engage with concepts deriving from emancipatory politics such as “feminism, postcolonialism, critical-race theory, and political ecology,” as Fraser encourages us to (Fraser, 2017, p. 10). 

Furthermore, related to the notion of lobbying are the phenomena of capture and revolving doors (Brezis & Cariolle, 2019; Stigler, 1971). The former derives from the economic theory of “regulatory capture”, which was designed to account for the ways in which regulators often end up working in the interests of the industries they are supposed to be overseeing on behalf of the public (Stigler, 1971). For example, the recent leak of “Uber Files” showed, among others, how Uber lobbied academics to produce favourable reports for its services, as well as political leaders to help with its expansion in markets, like France, where it was illegal to operate and was facing tremendous backlash from taxi drivers (Davies et al., 2022). Beyond regulatory or academic capture, scholars have also suggested that “platform capture” is also at play, whereby platforms may become captured by “bad actors who rig [them] for their own gains” (Usher, 2021, p. 31) and who exercise governance through them (Agarwal, 2022). 

News media organisations are also part of the market elite, especially large brands and publishing powerhouses which can sway public opinion and exert pressure on other stakeholders through their reach; hence they are often the target of capture by vested interests (Schiffrin, 2014, 2021), as are online platforms which, however, have stronger capacities to resist (Usher, 2021). For instance, Nina Holland, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory11, tweeted on 9 December 2022 that she received an invitation to attend an “invite-only” Gala Dinner organised by Politico Europe, “[bringing] together [more than] 150 high-level policy and industry leaders”12. Relatedly, when I asked Samuel Stolton (Interview #1) about the fact that the newsletter, of which he was in charge at Euractiv, was sponsored by Big Tech, he replied that he was “not a party to those commercial agreements or anything. I mean all it is, is an advert from Facebook or Google, or whoever on the “Digital Brief”. It’s a commercial arrangement they pay for an advert really.” It seems, then, that there is a broader consensus among EU stakeholders to sustain this status quo. 

Additionally, in recent years, industry associations have also been competing with one another in terms of lobbying policymakers, especially in the EU which has been leading the regulatory race in relation to rules for competition and content moderation (Alves et al., 2021). The same applies for non-governmental organisations or civil society organisations as well, which also compete with other stakeholders to advance their interests in shaping policies (Alves et al., 2021, p. 3). Yet, as literature suggests, “large businesses usually prevail over other stakeholders” because of their resources and the structural dependencies of state mentioned earlier, which grant them access to the “highest level of government representatives” (Alves et al., 2021, p. 3).  

Certainly, though, even among lobbyists and advocate groups there exist large power asymmetries. For example, DOT Europe, the leading lobbyist group representing large technology companies in the EU, has many more resources compared to digital rights advocates like EDRi or, even, publishers’ lobby groups, like News Media Europe (NME). However, as mentioned earlier, power is a relational concept (Emerson, 1962; Foucault, 1982). As such, power does not only derive from resources but also from access to influential actors and, potentially, the public discourse surrounding a certain topic. For example, considering the techlash that we discussed early in the general introduction, policymakers were more willing to hear voices critical to the power and expansion of platform companies (Interviews #2, 6, 14); hence, it might be that in periods of critical junctures, stakeholders from weaker vantage points can have a stronger impact. 

It is worth highlighting here that the EU has, in the last two decades approximately, attempted to reconcile the informational asymmetry described earlier, as well as to deal with phenomena like lobbying. A case in point, regarding the former, was the European Commission’s “Better Regulation Agenda”13, adopted in 2015, that aimed to increase the range of stakeholders participating in governance deliberations and, particularly, amplify the role of civil society (Deligiaouri & Suiter, 2020). It was, effectively, an integral part of the EU’s approach to policymaking and multi-stakeholderism (Donders & Raats, 2012) made “evidence-based policy-making [to gain] ground in Europe and beyond” (Puppis & Van den Bulck, 2019, p. 14). This was also underlined by Ms. Machet in our interview as something that EPRA has been pushing for consistently (Interview #2); related to the “beyond” aspect invoked by the authors here is the concept of the Brussels Effect (Bradford, 2012, 2020), which will be expounded on later in this dissertation (Chapter 3). A fundamental mechanism, then, of this approach has been the Commission’s public consultations (Beyers & Arras, 2020), which are examined in Case Study #1.  

As regards the measures taken by the EU to tackle the issue of lobbying’s political legitimacy, these are, primarily, limited to the launch and development of the EU’s Transparency Register (EP, 2021)14. As the legal document published in the Official Journal of the EU reads: “That dialogue enables stakeholders to present their views on decisions that may affect them and hence to contribute effectively to the evidence base on which policy proposals are made. Engaging with stakeholders enhances the quality of decision-making by providing channels for external views and expertise to be given” (EP, 2021, recital 2).  

Thus, the EU sought to, in practice, legitimise lobbying practices by regulating them and, purportedly, making them more transparent, while justifying it as an integral aspect of evidence-based policy. Indeed, there have been positive aspects of this approach. For example, organisations with limited resources have been able to showcase their arguments via consultations, and we have learned that Big Tech companies, namely GAFAM, have spent more than €120 million on legitimate lobbying in 2022, which places them among the top spenders in the Transparency Register. 

Yet, there are numerous examples showcasing otherwise. For instance, in October 2022, during the final stages of the negotiations on the DSA, European Parliament (EP) staffers submitted formal complaints against eight organisations for having lobbied in favour of Big Tech platforms, while officially claiming to represent small-and-medium sized businesses and, thus, violating transparency clauses (Goujard, 2022). Lobbying is also carried out by wealthy authoritarian states, like Gulf states, which in recent years have created significant path dependencies through their investments and energy supplies to Western democracies. As Alemanno notes, the “weakest link in the EU’s integrity system is the [EP], simply because of its lax rules and irregular enforcement” (2022). Such strategies do not only offer said market elites leverage but also seek to improve their public image. For example, a recent scandal made headlines about EP staffers, including Vice-President (VP) Eva Kaili, who were charged with bribery for lobbying in favour of Qatar (Wearing, 2022; Wheaton & Camut, 2022). 

Nevertheless, I claim the fact that lobbying has become a “regulated business” (Interview #1) does little more than legitimise the elites contending for the preservation of the governance’s status quo and is, thus, far from the idealised objective to enhance “the quality of decision-making” (EP, 2021, recital 2). In any case, the implications of these phenomena and the analytical value of these concepts will be further examined in Part II, where I touch upon the recent regulatory frameworks concerning online platforms developed within the EU, as well as in Part III, where I discuss the strategy of large companies, namely Google and Meta, to capture journalism through funding activities.