In recent years, the power of large technology corporations has become a focus of public debate in both developed and developing countries. This growing chorus brings together complaints about breaches of privacy and data protection, competition and market consolidation, and electoral and other political interference. The most powerful of these companies have grown into behemoths by establishing themselves both as purveyors of their own products, and as the hosts of “platforms” that circumscribe, and profit from, the activities of other organizations. This platform function gives these companies substantial power over their commercial rivals, who depend upon these platforms to operate. More fundamentally, this article argues, the dual function of these “platform companies” allows them to straddle the very categories that we use to organize our understanding of the political and economic world. They are at once product companies, service companies and infrastructure companies; players in the market and markets of the marketplace; private platforms and public spheres. The straddling of these categories places these companies in the institutional cracks of the regulatory system. Moreover, companies consciously exploit this regulatory straddling to thwart challenges to their power. This article argues that such deliberate shape-shifting has allowed these companies to control the political and economic stage on which their own power must be contested, and compromised the ability of scholars, the public and ultimately states to see clearly, and therefore constrain, that power.
Bibliographical notePublished online: 20 Oct 2020.
- Corporate power
- Technology platforms
- Private authority
- Digital economy