Nick Cowen is a Fellow at the New York University School of Law
Over the last two decades online services have transformed from a product of a multitude of enterprises to being dominated by a handful of corporate-owned platforms such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. They specialize in connecting media producers to users. These are often mutual interactions with users both producing and consuming content. These platforms play an increasing role governing commercial exchange, as well as civil discussion, with plausibly pernicious implications for liberal democracy. As I propose in a recent paper ‘Markets for Rules’, blockchains offer a promising solution to this danger by helping to displace corporate ownership in favor of common platforms sustained by users themselves.
Corporate concentration has produced enormous efficiencies and innovations, improving user experiences and boosting investment in hardware and infrastructure. But it has also had several bad consequences. These enterprises face extremely low marginal costs and network effects whereby additional users add value to an existing user-base. Some of these effects are explained by these platforms’ business models of collecting personal data to target advertising more effectively at customers. The more interactions on a single platform users have with each other, the more useful the data for advertisers. The result is overwhelming returns to scale and a winner-takes-all competition for profits.
This has troubling implications for economic inequality, especially if we end up with a handful of corporations taking a bite out of every conceivable transaction. Of greater concern is the way owners exert control over who can join and what people are allowed to do on their platforms. Content producers can be demonetized or banned, effectively denying them access to a user-base or revenue. Online sellers can find themselves frozen out of a platform payment system without legal remedies. Controversial or unpopular producers survive at the whim of executives or, at best, a patchily enforced official policy.
This reliance on private governance is a problem for consumers, producers and ultimately citizens. But it is also a challenge for executives who find themselves mediating acrimonious personal disputes and political debate. With all the data in the world, they struggle to judge consistently what belongs on their platforms. The fact that these corporations have ended up functioning as unofficial censors and wielders of sanctions has led some commentators to propose regulating these platforms as public utilities or, more radically, nationalizing them so that access to them is decided democratically. These solutions have their own perils because any centralized system of monopoly control, whatever the underlying democratic credentials, can produce authoritarian outcomes. Liberal democracies up until now have been sustained by an independent civil society constituted by overlapping and competing spheres of governance, not the monopoly of either democratic or corporate government.
The prosecution of the CEO and founders of Backpage, who failed to exclude sex workers from their platform, illustrates the reliance of these private enterprises on government support on controversial policy issues even in relatively free societies. The combination of privately-developed data-collecting networks with over-arching state control is arguably reaching a nadir in China which is rolling out an unaccountable surveillance system of ‘social credit’ that can identify political dissidents and automatically exclude them from significant spheres of civil society.
Is there a way that blockchains can help navigate around the centralising and authoritarian impetus of technology-facilitated governance? Blockchains emerged from two pre-existing technologies – public ledgers and asymmetric cryptography – to produce a way of sharing data across a network that is resistant to manipulation by unauthorized actors. Initially conceived as offering alternatives to state-backed currencies, blockchains are now used to build decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and dapps (decentralized apps). They can supply similar functions as corporate platforms but without an overall owner.
These systems are sustained by rewarding network participants with tokens (through completing intensive computing processes called mining). Tokens are convertible into ordinary currency, albeit currently at volatile rates. The entrepreneurs that build these platforms typically reward themselves and investors a large stake in those tokens but once the network is launched, they do not have control over how it is utilized. The rules of each network are self-enforcing. These rules can be changed, either through the original (or new) developers launching a rule-set that others may choose to switch over to (a fork). Alternatively, the rule-sets might contain provision for amendment. Such amendment schemes are, of course, open to manipulation as is the case for all political processes. Nevertheless, what these schemes offer is a way of interacting and exchanging at large distances without an overarching ruler. Instead, conduct is permitted on the basis of fixed rules enforced mechanically by people’s decisions to participate in the system. One way of looking at these schemes is that they have decentralized properties of communal norms, combined with the possibility of more deliberate design and experimentation of more formal rules and institutions. I call this common government.
The implications of this new technology and kind of governance might turn out to be very far-reaching, approaching that of the development of the Internet itself or even the printing press. But what could it mean for familiar Internet platforms in the medium-term? First, participating in mutual platforms might better align the incentives of users and platform designers. Right now, platform owners rely on squeezing as much data out of users as possible in order to sell it on to advertisers and to sell additional services. Mutual platforms, without responsibilities to shareholders, can experiment with different funding models. Individual users might elect to sell access to their profile to advertisers but the data itself can be made more secure as it will be a property of an encrypted network rather than a profile stored in a central private database. Privacy can be better assured than private management with public regulation.
Second, the networks can be more robust both to natural and political perturbations. Under decentralized protocols, ordinary users help store and serve content to each other. With the addition of blockchains, these users can be compensated for making their idle computer resources available for network use. This means that data doesn’t have to travel so far as is currently the case from host to user and the network as a whole can better cope with outages from particular nodes without data loss. Without a central controller, there is no particular agent that a government can coerce or punish for allowing specific interactions over a platform. Governments would then face the more difficult choice of permitting or prohibiting Internet communications altogether. It is thus more robust against arbitrary government censorship and manipulation of trade.
The relationship between users on a platform is mutual. The relationship between users and platform owners, however, is presently hierarchical – a private dynamic that government agencies can exploit. What blockchains may eventually permit is the provision of relatively efficient networks reliant neither on a single public agency nor private owner.
Learn more about Nick’s work here.