The LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission was host to a book launch of timely importance, judging by the informed and engaged audience that came to listen to the panel discussion. Digital Dominance was described by its co-editor Damian Tambini as a ‘problem-definition’ book rather than a ‘solutions’ book, taking an interdisciplinary approach to questions such as the implications of the effect of tech giants’ market and social power on media pluralism, freedom of expression and electoral legitimacy.
Listen to the audio of the event here:
Dr Tambini was joined by Patrick Barwise, Sonia Livingstone and Martin Moore, co-editor of the book.
The panel brought three main themes to the table: the inadequacy of competition regulation as it currently stands; to what extent self-regulation of tech giants is desirable; and the viability of hastily constructed regulation, without consideration for the wider implications.
Patrick Barwise identified the problem of the ‘winner takes all’ tech market structure being such that traditional remedies to market failure are ineffective. Tech companies can be eclipsed but not displaced – their tendency is to dominate the market they operate in and stay there. In order to gain a place in the online ecosystem, a new digital company needs to invent a new market and take it over entirely, rather than usurp the position of the incumbent. As such, traditional notions of competition don’t apply and standard methods of competition legislation are unsuccessful.
Sonia Livingstone brought out the human impact in the debate through the lens of ‘the audience’. She raised the question of whether the current digital landscape is the inevitable result of a discourse which prioritised the concept of the consumer over that of the citizen. Any ‘theory of harm’ that is developed needs to take into account the digital user as a citizen, not just a consumer.
Martin Moore urged caution on behalf of governments rushing to legislate against the perceived problems raised by tech giants and information intermediaries. Citing the butterfly effect, he argued that frantically implementing legislation without studying the problem could have some unanticipated negative effects. Despite the desire for immediate solutions, more needs to be done in the realm of definition and comprehension of the problem if we are to come up with a constructive and long-lasting outcome.
The audience questions raised a few additional difficulties in problem-definition: tax and inequality, how the Chinese tech giants fit into the Western narrative, and even whether there could be a public service search engine. The landscape in digital dominance is more complex in economic, political and public-interest terms than meets the eye, it seems.
Moore suggested that those tasked with policy making could do worse than read this book before taking the road of legislation. As a final thought and counter to Moore’s caution, Tambini was more certain of the duty of civil society to respond to the tech giants’ rising power: “we are condemned to act; doing nothing is not an option.”
This article is by LSE MSc student Evie Ioannidi @evieioannidi
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.