Is “Platform Power” Crushing the Web?

Alarm bells were sounded this week by Tim Berners Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, over the increasing domination of the internet by a very small number of sites. 

In an open letter, Berners Lee describes a series of ways via which the likes of Facebook and Google are crowding out other platforms and establishing essentially unfair advantages for themselves. He also argues that such domination is aiding the viral spread of fake-news. 

In many ways, he is outlining classic cartel behavior in under-regulated markets and there’s a growing debate about how such problems can be mitigated. It certainly doesn’t help that the platforms’ global nature would require huge international cooperation from states in order to tether the worst effects, and many of those states have motives that could be at least as dubious. It also doesn’t help that many establishment politicians can be behind the curve on internet culture while others are keen to exploit it for their own ends. The balance of any kind of regulation (or voluntary measures on the part of the big platforms) is again caught in a common potential trap: on the one hand, the scope for authoritarianism is obvious. On the other, too lax an approach could well be pretty useless.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing opinion that some form of action is bound to happen, especially in the context of the fake news problem. This is underlined by Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti who recently said that regulation is inevitable if Facebook continues to fail to financially support trusted news sources having hoovered up such a large proportion of marketing budgets which used to go to news platforms. 

Quality independent media is even more at risk of being crowded out by new algorithms and fake news. As far as Facebook is concerned, many platforms are de-prioritizing it as a means of getting views but a group of independent news providers have banded together to try and mitigate the problems caused by those new algorithms that have resulted in people being far less likely to see news items in their feeds. The group features some of the biggest names in the UK sector, you can find out more here.

Stephen Durrant

The Media Fund