Sources of Tech Platform Power
A handful of tech platforms mediate a large and growing share of our commerce and communications. Over the last year, the public has come to realize that the power these firms wield may pose significant hazards. Elected leaders ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) have expressed alarm at the level of control that firms like Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), and Facebook enjoy. In a recent poll, a majority of Americans voiced concern that the government wouldn’t do enough to regulate U.S. tech companies. As the editor of BuzzFeed observed, a “major trend in American politics” is “the palpable, and perhaps permanent, turn against the tech industry,” now viewed as “sinister new centers of unaccountable power.”
New revelations continue to expose the degree of power these firms wield and the consequences that flow from that power. The potential effects range from stifling startups and undermining innovation to manipulating the flow of information and enabling foreign interference in our elections. Despite growing recognition of platform power, public conversation about why this power exists and what to do about it is still in its early stages. This essay seeks to advance that discussion. Part I identifies forms of platform power, identifying gatekeeper power, vertical integration, and information asymmetries, and explores how this power is being or could be exploited. Part II examines historical analogies for these forms of power and identifies legal hooks that could help us tackle it.