Toward a Global Platform Governance Research Agenda

March 22, 2021
An employee at Kytabu, an online learning platform, works in the company's office in Nairobi, Kenya on July 28, 2017. (Reuters/Siegfried Modola)

On March 24–26, 15 organizations across five continents will come together to host the First Annual Conference of a Platform Governance Research Network. Here, co-organizer Sonja Solomun reflects on the state of the research field and the gaps it urgently needs to address.

Research on platform governance is undergoing a growth spurt, and it’s clear why. High-profile cases of platforms’ role in shaping democracy are receiving considerable media and policy attention. Users have been feeling the weight of daily abuse and extremism online since the early years of the internet. And researchers and practitioners working on digital platforms, long disillusioned by both techno-solutionism and the alleged threat of regulation it feeds on, are looking for alternative solutions. All told, research in this space has renewed a broad interest on the politics of platforms — with just cause.

How platform companies and other actors develop and enact policies that directly affect access to essential services is of pressing concern. How the same group of actors are shaping the very contours of public life is perhaps even more troubling. Research pursuing answers to the question of how to improve platform governance is as crucial as ever.

What Is Platform Governance?

The recent but burgeoning umbrella of “platform governance” is one attempt for research to offer new models that capture the “layers of governance relationships” that structure and mediate relations between state, private and public actors, and the micro-networks emerging among them. Reciprocally, platform governance research considers how the complex interplay between actors, tactics and underlying infrastructures works to routinely and reflexively affect the politics and the governance of platforms. To these ends, research in this space has contributed significant insights, theories and methods to explore and inform a broad range of international regulatory processes and formal and informal governance arrangements.

While recently gaining attention from governments and the media, the discipline of platform governance research has emerged from at least two decades of scholarship on the social, economic and material structures and power relations that constitute the internet more broadly. Scholars have convincingly demonstrated how the centralization of market dominance shapes the contours of public life and have argued how “platformization” affects all markets, leading to growing calls to incentivize competition among platform companies. Others prioritize data protection and algorithmic accountability to rein in platform power. Overwhelmingly, research and policy focus on content moderation, perhaps understandably, given the historic roots of a field that emerged largely from the “private mediation of content and those who provide and access it,” as internet governance scholar Laura DeNardis identified.

While conversations around mandate and jurisdiction are unified by the central scope of questions around governance, decisions about who, specifically, bears responsibility to govern digital intermediaries or who should set corporate rules remain a fragmented policy area. Many would likely agree that private self-regulation seems largely inadequate, especially given platforms’ widely inconsistent enforcement of their own company policies. Some of the more innovative models in platform governance research centre on civil society and impacted communities in their proposals. Others focus on more traditional regulatory actors and instruments, calling for global approaches to platform governance that bolster the kind of coordinated strength-in-numbers needed to take on “big tech.”

Overall, the field of platform governance has certainly enabled critical and robust studies of platform power — the political, legal and social conditions through which platforms have come to exert undeniable influence on democracies and economies around the world. Yet, recent scholarship and regulatory conversations predominantly focus on the European and Western context. This geographic silo threatens to undermine the field’s very own agenda.

Platform Governance Growing Pains

It’s clear that the nascent platform governance community is experiencing growing pains. And some are more uncomfortable than others. Decisions to “deplatform” or otherwise demote, suspend or ban not only individual pieces of content but also entire accounts and platforms have become a matter of significant and often contentious public and policy debate. The recent explosion of attention on content moderation may, however, be a red herring: by feeding irreconcilable public debates over what constitutes harmful speech, for instance, we serve market interest by distracting from economic and structural reform.

As many have argued, policy in this area needs to draw on the expanded breadth of literature that understands the structural and organizational character of “moderation as an expansive socio-technical phenomenon, one that functions in many contexts and takes many forms,” as Tarleton Gillespie and Patricia Aufderheide suggest. Instead, platform governance is often driven by high-profile cases such as the Christchurch Call, and by an overwhelming spotlight on large, US-based platforms. This focal point has led platform governance research down a “slippery silo” of overdetermined critiques casting “the big five” as understudies for the entire digital ecosystem. Not only does this potentially reify the very platform power it attempts to dissolve, it formalizes an American exceptionalism that leads both platforms and governments to resource and respond to the largest markets, namely, Europe and the United States. Most importantly, it obscures the profound global inequities behind what is ultimately a deeply structural impediment to both academic and policy growth.

The platform governance research community remains divided, not only by region but also by disciplinary approaches and methods. Identifiable gaps are emerging — non-text-based platforms, start-up platforms and other forms of “deviant media” are often overlooked. While robust research on areas such as the gig economy and platform labour exists, it can remain segregated from the platform governance umbrella. At times, policy-informed research can silo policy problems across content regulation, data protection and competition, rather than take up how they might intersect. Most importantly, the very communities who have been most adversely affected by digital technologies remain conspicuously excluded from platform governance research.

Toward a More Global Platform Governance Research Agenda

Those of us working on platform governance are acutely aware of the global impact of platforms — small and large. But recognizing platforms’ disproportionate impact on populations around the world is key to consistent governance, as legal expert Chinmayi Arun recently argued. Platform policies such as global content moderation standards do not simply “map onto” local contexts. As Tomiwa Ilori points out, people in the Global South experience the effects of platform power differently and often more severely than users in the Global North, especially as that power intersects with and is prefigured by established legal regimes and colonial legacies.

As countless researchers and practitioners have pointed out, the values and biases embedded into technical systems produced by mostly North American companies have had a drastically uneven impact on diverse local users and those in other parts of the world. As one example among, sadly, many, Black women and LGBTQ+ communities bear the brunt of internet violence against women, and are already doubly impacted by platforms’ existing terms and policies. To repeat an established fact: harms are not universal — they are intersectional, across different axes of power. Nonetheless, these key differences are often left out of a one-size-fits-all policy approach, which poses significant political and human rights risks. Led by women of colour, a considerable branch of work within platform governance has contributed essential empirical and theoretical understanding of how platforms produce and maintain gendered identities, class structures and racism, with vital implications for platform governance. Yet women of colour — especially Black women — remain silenced, despite pioneering platform governance from its early appellations

Platform governance, if it is to inform sound policy and move beyond its current limitations, must provide space to grow reflexive engagement with, and acknowledgement of, these tensions. This requires, as some have suggested, broadening the scope of platform governance to include under-represented disciplines such as critical race studies, Indigenous studies and game studies. It might also involve broadening the remit of regulatory frameworks toward rights-based approaches such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation or California’s Consumer Protection Act, which are not without other challenges. Calls to include frameworks from data justice, design justice and reparative justice are rapidly growing among efforts to foreground collective, social justice resolutions to what are inherently collective harms.

Growing Cross-Collaborations

Perhaps most urgently, equitable platform governance requires more input from affected communities, a key recommendation that researchers and digital rights advocates have been making for years. Doing so enables a host of innovative policy experiments that ground local expertise and underscore the value of participatory research methods and robust collaborations. Here, as human rights advocate Dia Kayyali argues, meaningful engagement requires an expansion of the role and definition of platform accountability “expert.” In Latin America, for instance, despite the lack of regulatory protection for women facing gender-based violence online, feminist accountability experts in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Argentina have developed a wide array of governance strategies.

Indeed, some of the most innovative, critical and justice-oriented interventions into platform governance come from civil society actors, digital rights organizations and independent practitioners, especially in the Global South. Composed of several policy think tanks in India, the Data Governance Network, for instance, has proposed new community data ownership models. If actors concerned with platform governance do, in fact, bring silenced voices to the fore, they must also consider the invisible labour that sustains platforms, including through care work and gig work. Significant governance interventions on the latter, for example, have been led by calls to reform the misclassification of platform workers as “independent contractors” in the Global South. By highlighting links between data rights and labour rights, Bengaluru-based Aapti Institute and IT for Change are developing models of data stewardship that advance self-determination and collective bargaining.

Conceptual models for digital self-determination and data rights taken up in Europe and the United States directly echo growing calls for data sovereignty by Indigenous peoples around the world, led by coalitions such as the Te Mana Raraunga Māori Data Sovereignty Network in New Zealand, among others. What becomes clear is that those who are hyper-invisible are setting the data governance agenda rather than being the disadvantaged subjects of data exploitation. A global platform governance network would have much to learn from these active global sites and contexts.

Reorienting Platform Power

A more global platform governance research agenda is one way to work against platform determinism — a branch of technological determinism that posits technology as the dominant driver of social change. By situating platform power within both place-specific and broader social, political and economic contexts, we can unpack the nuances between platforms as harbingers of democratic free expression, at one end, and all-seeing behemoths, at the other. These nuances will allow us to respond to how they are always both, without flattening the scale of global inequities in the process. Determinist takes are especially adept at fetishizing the present moment. The erasure of history from some platform governance conversations depoliticizes its aims, especially when uneven political will threatens to undermine it. Fetishizing the intractable influence of monolithic “giants” can exaggerate “bad actors,” consequently generating anew, rather than reorienting, the market logic of a handful of companies.

In her article “What Is to Be Done,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore concludes that “policy is to politics what method is to research. It’s a script for enlivening some future possibility — an experiment.” We are at a critical juncture of needing bold experiments, political will and critically oriented global collaborations to enliven the field of platform governance. Because giants can, and do, fall.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Sonja Solomun is the research director of the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University and an affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute.