Thomas, Pradip Ninan (2023). Platform Regulation. Exemplars, Approaches and Solutions. Anti-trust, The Right to be Forgotten, GDPR, Privacy, The Equalisation Levy, Digital Platforms Report. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 123 pages.
By Matthias Finger
Digitalization is such a multifaceted and such a pervasive phenomenon that only a cross-disciplinary approach and culturally diverse perspectives will ultimately help us understand its essence and hopefully enable us to deal with it fully. To this end, the recent book by Pradip Ninan Thomas on Platform Regulation is a very welcome contribution. The author is a professor in the school of Communications and Arts at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Of Indian origin, he is an expert on digitalization and its effects on Indian society and culture. As such, he brings a cultural approach to digital platforms, digitalization, and Big Tech more generally, and, what is more, an approach rooted in a non-Western culture. And this is what makes his book relevant and interesting, and which leads to the fact that his insights are sometimes a little bit disconcerting, at least for the Western reader.
This is a very short and concise book with a rather misleading title. But then book titles are generally decided by publishers, not by the author, which only confirms to me that the publisher (Oxford University Press) did not really understand what the book is about. It consists of seven chapters that (1) set the scene – chapter 1 on the reasons for regulation and chapter 2 on platform power –, (2) four chapters that describe platform regulation in the EU, the US, India and Australia, and (3) a synthesis chapter which is clearly the most interesting and the most insightful one.
But the treatment of the question is not as systematic and as logical as it seems. The insights are often more intuitive and the use of the terminology – for example the use of the word “regulation” – is not as rigorous as we are used to from lawyers and economists. Still, the book is clearly original and insightful and should be read as the look from an Indian (non-Western) cultural scholar on what platforms, digitalization and Big Tech do to society and culture. As such, it is yet another element to the puzzle of understanding what platforms do to society, East, West, North and South.
The cultural approach to digital platforms
The author’s point of departure is the by now widely shared idea that the big US platforms (GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) have come to economic, social, political and even cultural power thanks to a lot of complacency from governments, especially the US government. But complacency is not limited to the US government and can also be found in developing countries, as shown by the author for the cases of India, even though these countries are targets of what the author calls “digital imperialism” (page 2) and which today has turned into a form of digital geopolitics. And this to the point that at least Facebook/Meta and Google “have become critical infrastructures of planetary dimensions” (page 4), upon which businesses, consumers, citizens, and all productive sectors of society have by now become dependent.
But this is not only the result of complacent (and maybe even actively supporting) governments; it has also cultural roots. As a matter of fact, it is also the result of “Big Tech” having been able to tap into, if not actively shape the discourse, and the increasingly worldwide belief in technology as humanity’s (only and by now only remaining) road to salvation. In this regard, it is important to remember Fred Turner’s excellent analysis of the origins and of the power of “digital utopianism”, and “technological optimism” more generally, as having its roots in Californian counterculture,  and more generally in mostly Christianism, especially American missionary Christianism. 
It is indeed interesting and relevant to place, as the author does, “platform exceptionalism” (page 17) – that is the argument that digital platforms should be beyond government intervention – within this powerful Western/American cultural tradition of technology (and today digitalization) as salvation. But platforms are exceptional not just because they are “technologies of salvation”, they furthermore should also be exempt from government intervention because they are merely neutral intermediaries and as such void of any particular political and/or commercial interest and intent. In short, platforms and Big Tech, so goes the argument, are so much aligned with the overall cultural belief in “technology as salvation” that they should not be regulated.
But, despite all of their benevolence, neutrality and active contribution to “digital salvation”, platforms, GAFAs and Big Tech, at times, generate problems which can be such that governments have no choice but to react. Indeed, “it has taken multiple platform scandals for governments to act on regulation” (page 2). Yet, as one expects from purely reactive governments, government intervention and reaction is basically inconsistent, piecemeal, lukewarm and ambiguous, given that governments are self-interested actors which sometimes can team up with platforms, not to speak about the fact that they can themselves be platformized by Big Tech, and typically share share the same religious beliefs in digital utopianism and platform exceptionalism.
In chapters 3 to 6, the author illustrates such reactions by the European Union (The EU, Platform Regulation, and the ‘Right to be Forgotten’), the United States, India (The Contrary Compulsions of a Surveillance State), and Australia. His treatment of what each of these governments (regional organization in the case of the EU) does is as sketchy and unsystematic as the governments’ reactions. The author does not even try to put any order into the respective policies yet simply highlights what he sees as each government’s major regulatory preoccupation with digital platforms and Big Tech more generally.
In the case of the EU, the author exclusively focuses on the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), yet reflects more generally on the question of data, especially personal data, in light of what he calls “curative capitalism” (page 37), i.e., the monetization of data controlled and owned by a handful of global companies. “For the European Union it is not just the power and reach of these companies that are issues to be dealt with but it is centrally a reckoning with how to manage ‘data’ as currency, a natural resource, and as the basis for (EU) identity in the context of trade and the protection of privacy within the Union and outside of it” (page 37). Given the EU’s basic idea that “data is a currency” and therefore a, or rather the motor of economic growth, the EU is preoccupied, says the author, by squaring the circle. Squaring the circle means to protect privacy without hampering the economic benefits that can be derived from data to further the Single European (now digital) market. To that effect three major data protection principles are defined, operationalized, and enshrined in regulation, namely (1) the right to be forgotten as a new quasi human right, (2) the right of access, rectification, cancellation, and opposition (ARCO), and (3) the right of portability of personal data. Unfortunately, the author does not say whether this approach is realistic and whether it will ultimately succeed.
Platform Regulation in the United States (chapter 4) must be considered in the context of the US being the home of the world’s leading Big Tech companies, which in turn explains, at least in part, the US’ policy vacuum when it comes to regulating digital platforms. Unlike in the EU, “the ‘will’ to regulate is of recent vintage and is linked to a large extent to the 2016 elections – a watershed moment in the recognition of the extent of the manipulation of affective behaviors online, along with the growing political unease of the powerful role played by Big Tech intermediaries in shaping the terms for economic competition in the United States” (page 52). In this chapter the author, however, only confirms what has become widely known by now, namely that the US is not (yet) very advanced when it comes to regulating digital platforms, as there is no clear regulatory focus. There is also no clear “regulatory approach”, whereby policy-makers hesitate between antitrust and self-regulation approaches. In the meantime, the US government continues to “assiduously support the operations of Big Tech on the global stage by resisting any attempts to regulate Big Tech via taxation policies such as in France, the EU and India and compensation policies such as in Australia. … the US government also resists moves to bring Big Tech under the embrace of data privacy and data localization in jurisdictions such as the EU and India” (page 53).
When it comes to India, which the author’s area of expertise, the regulatory role of the State is equally ambivalent, but for a different reason than in the US, as India at the same time needs to harmonize its laws with global laws and wants to protect itself from external pressures. With the Modi government, “data nationalism” and “platform nationalism” (page 83) appear to be overarching policy goals, resulting in numerous surveillance instruments and monitoring systems whereby the Indian government “will have virtually unfettered access to sensitive personal information … with no parliamentary oversight and no formal privacy regime in place to protect individuals from government intrusion” (page 69). A Personal Data Protection Bill was recently withdrawn because it was contested by privacy advocates. More successful is a national Equalisation Levy, covering all online information and database accesses, online B2B transactions, and online advertising. This levy has indeed helped the Indian government to earn income from digital platforms, a somewhat unique achievement in international comparison. And further along the nationalism idea, India still dreams of establishing “Indian platforms on par with Alibaba and Tencent in China” (page 83).
Australia’s interest in digital platforms must be seen within the context of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Channel 9 dominance of the news and broadcasting markets. Feeling threatened by the emerging platforms in digital advertising, whereby close to 80% of ad revenues have already gone to Google and Facebook, Newscorp succeeded in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to be “mandated to establish an inquiry into platforms and their impact on the survival of journalism in Australia” (page 86). The corresponding report was published in 2019 and produced 23 recommendations of various nature, among which the establishment of a specialized digital platform branch within ACCC to monitor platforms. Yet, it has not resulted in any platform regulation so far.
The overall picture that emerges from these four country cases, is that the reaction of the respective governments to platform power is sketchy, ambivalent, timid and at best unsystematic. Clearly, governments are not impartial actors when it comes to platform regulation. Even if the author does not comparatively assess the regulatory initiatives by the different governments and the EU, it becomes clear that the EU has “expressed the clearest intent to regulate Big Tech … and the evolving laws in the EU are becoming the touchstone for regulatory laws in other jurisdictions around the world” (page 50).
The profoundly public dimension of platforms
In the concluding chapter 7 the author crystallizes his insights, and this is clearly the best chapter of the book. He concludes that the regulatory efforts by the respective governments are piecemeal, sketchy, unsystematic and mostly the reactive expression of the government of the day. These efforts avoid going to the heart of the matter, as there is no clear understanding what platforms really are and do. And at the “heart of the matter” is, according to the author, “the potential of Big Tech to manipulate the affective, emotional behaviors” (page 101). Also, “the mainstreaming of ‘surveillance’ by the State and Big Tech adds yet another level of complexity” (page 103), not to mention “the conflicts of interest that arise when the interests of the State and Big Tech become so enmeshed that it is difficult to see the difference between e-government and e-government by Big Tech” (page 104).
At a more technical level, the problem is “algorithmic governance” (page 5), i.e., the fact that “algorithms are political in the sense that they help to make the world appear in certain ways rather than others” (page 6). In this regard it is perhaps important to remember Lehdonvirta’s argument, whereby he equates platforms to government.  The challenge, according to the author, is double: on the one hand algorithms must be made to reflect the public interest, which would call for States regulating algorithms in the public interest. On the other hand, “there is an absolute need for independent bodies to oversee transparency and accountability in State surveillance” (p. 104), given that the State is at least tempted by “algorithmic surveillance”, if it is not directly joint-venturing with the platforms to do precisely that.
So what is the answer? In the last six pages of his book, the author, unfortunately not very convincingly, outlines his answer of “Platforms as Public Utilities” (pages 122-119). Regardless of whether it would be even feasible to either (1) regulate algorithms in the public interest, (2) nationalize Big Tech or (3) structurally separate platforms into a public infrastructure and a commercial services part, such solutions would, at best get at “algorithmic capitalism”. As the author himself admits in conclusion, it would not solve the problem of “complicity between Big Tech and governments” (page 116), especially in matters of “algorithmic surveillance”, too powerful is the dynamics of and belief in digitalization, be it public or private.
Of course, one could have wished for a much more systematic, more thorough and more in-depth treatment of the various regulatory initiatives by the EU, the US, India and Australia. It would also have been interesting to cover a few more countries, which are equally actively reacting towards digital platforms, such as for example the UK, China and Türkiye. But this was never the objective of the author to begin with, as he ultimately sees the respective fragmented governments’ regulatory initiatives and the rise of global digital platforms as being part of the same profound and ultimately cultural process of westernizing, colonizing, and technologizing every corner of economic, social and political life.
The main weakness of the book, however, lies in the fact that he does not show any (cultural) alternative to this process, besides the simple somewhat cynical observation that even a well-conceived regulatory policy will ultimately be no more than a drop of water in the (digital) ocean, if it will not make things worse to begin with. Such are the limits of a culturalist approach to digital platforms, digitalization and Big Tech.
 Turner, Fred (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Nobel, David (1999). The Religion of Technology: the Divinity of Man and the Sprit of Invention. London: Penguin.
 Lehdonvirta, Vili (2022). Cloud Empires. How Digital Platforms are Overtaking the State and how we can Regain Control. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
This edition of the Digital Governance Book Review was authored by: Matthias Finger, C4DT
Image credit: Cover of Platform Regulation. Exemplars, Approaches and Solutions. Anti-trust, The Right to be Forgotten, GDPR, Privacy, The Equalisation Levy, Digital Platforms Report by Pradip Ninan Thomas, published by OUP.