M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 155

Digital Realignment: Rebalancing Platform Economies from Corporation to Consumer

Dipayan Ghosh
Nick Couldry



We are experiencing a fundamental evolution of the media ecosystem, a transformation that grants to platform corporations a novel emergent power to shape the infrastructures, architectures, and spaces of social life. This transformation poses challenges not only for the regulators of markets but also for regulators concerned with protecting the good of society and democracy. That challenge has barely been defined or understood, let alone met. Constant advancement of the technological base underlying global society is driving this massive change in the media, and creating a new space of social interaction that is under commercial control. This “internet space” has fundamentally different properties from pre-digital social space. It has become governed by business models (the “consumer internet”) that entail a damaging alignment between corporate and bad-faith interests. That business model to date, has not meaningfully been challenged by regulators. The result is a global commercialized infrastructure that facilitates the generation of social harms on a considerable scale and at extraordinary speed. Our digital infrastructure needs urgently to be realigned.

We must renegotiate the balance of power between the corporate platform and the consumer. A new digital realignment is necessary. Achieving it will require using existing regulatory tools to their fullest capacities, but also designing new ones as part of a “regulatory reset” for today’s consumer internet. First, radical reform of the market behind digital media platforms is needed that would restore to consumers effective forms of privacy protection, thus enabling individuals to exercise real choice about how data that relates to or affects them is gathered, processed, and used. But market reform cannot be sufficient to address the negative social externalities of the consumer internet. Needed, second, is much greater transparency on platform corporations, uncovering the uncontrolled social harms from which they profit. To address those harms, platforms must be required to take urgent remedial action against controllable social harms, data collection that corrodes broader social values, and unregulated anonymity: those proposals, in turn, require adjustments to platforms’ current blanket immunity from responsibility under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Failing such remedial action by platforms, more drastic measures, such as platform break-up, must be considered.

This paper proposes the regulatory reset that is required to salvage a citizens’ internet from the wreckage of today’s consumer internet. Although, in some respects, legislative measures are more advanced in Europe than in North America, The report has relevance for both European and North American jurisdictions, but with a U.S. presidential election approaching, the importance of the issues raised for the incoming U.S. administration could hardly be greater.

Download this paper in PDF format