This summer, in the middle of a record-breaking wildfire season, when urgent updates of spreading flames and crucial evacuation instructions were vital for those affected, Facebook was blocking links to Canadian news.
The move was part of a continuing response to the adoption of the Online News Act, Bill C-18, and Prime Minister Trudeau denounced the company for doing it during an emergency in parts of the country.
“It is so inconceivable,” Trudeau said, “that a company like Facebook is choosing to put corporate profits ahead of ensuring that local news organizations can get up-to-date information to Canadians and reach them where Canadians spend a lot of their time — online, on social media, on Facebook.”
Facebook’s parent, Meta, is blocking news content rather than pay news producers for content monetized through ad venues as the law prescribes. Google is threatening to block news, too, when the law formally comes into effect at the end of this year. And on X, formerly Twitter, harmful content has proliferated since Elon Musk bought and renamed the company.
Amid these changes, an important question has emerged: Are we, as author Cory Doctorow puts it, in the last stage of an “enshittification” cycle in which tech firms exploit locked-in users with a declining quality of informational services and an increase in ads?
Tim Hartford, the popular undercover economist, thinks so. He argues economists have long recognized how strong network effects and high switching costs prevalent in the digital economy lead “to enshittification because platform providers see (the acquisition of) early adopters as an investment in future profits.”
As time goes on, opportunity costs for users to go elsewhere give firms incentive to chip away at the better services they offer initially.
To counter this, competition and openness must be promoted among platforms for the good of consumers and general public welfare, he argues. This follows Doctorow’s activist work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in promoting adversarial interoperability to enable new product or service developers to connect with existing ones without needing the approval of the companies behind them.
Are market-based solutions to enshittification sufficient?
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and critic of Bill C-18, has long argued for market openness to be the core principle for Canada’s digital governance framework. Canadian authorities were recently encouraged to mandate greater interoperability in the digital economy more generally to fight consumer capture.
Calls for tougher competition rules for digital companies have come from former top Canadian public servant Kevin Lynch and Paul Deegan, the head of News Media Canada, the national association of the Canadian news media industry.
Openness in national markets, however, is not a silver bullet. It may also unintentionally promote centralization as platforms seek to become “the” infrastructure.
For example, Google’s turn to open-source software for smartphones can be viewed as an attempt to solidify its position in the advertising business. Its open-source Android mobile-phone operating system enrolls users into the search giant’s wider suite of services, most of which are supported by digital advertising.
Most mobile phones manufacturers now use Android instead of building their own software. That includes Samsung, Nokia and HTC, making it the most widely used operating system, with a 71.8-per-cent share of users today. At the same time, Google has secured its position as the leading digital marketing firm, with Meta the only close competitor. Openness has enabled a duopoly to deliver more ads to locked-in users of online services that are not actually open.
Counterintuitively, it may be that closing off platforms can work against their enshittification. For instance, by moving to automatically block third-party cookies, Apple has sought to distinguish itself as the more privacy-friendly advertising service. In practice, it has created a digital walled garden limiting how other companies can access data about its users.
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In this case, while not impeding digital advertising, this form of competitive closure has worked in the public interest by providing new privacy guarantees.
The infrastructure of digital markets
The behaviour of Google and Apple underscores the importance of the broader social and international context in which digital platforms operate. More than how policy decisions will affect single companies, we should look at how they shape interactions with each other as well as their users.
Five interrelated policy goals should focus on facilitation, openness, durability, centrality and transparency. Policy-makers can ask themselves questions for each one:
– What activities are being enabled?
– How easily can users connect with each other?
– How persistent are these relations over time?
– How reliant are users on these connections?
– How much knowledge do users have about their roles and capacities in the broader tech infrastructure?
How these points interact with each other is key. Openness can provide some benefits, but it may lead to greater centralization and create new dependencies.
A need for greater transparency and global co-ordination
Two key considerations should be taken into account when designing policies to regulate digital platforms.
First, greater transparency is essential to ensure we know how tech infrastructures operate and get a sense of who wins or loses from each policy action. More research-informed policy can focus on tech infrastructures that embed individual platforms in a wider global digital economy.
As part of Canada’s ongoing digital regulatory agenda, it’s essential to require digital platforms to disclose more information about their relationship with news companies as well as how they moderate content.
Second, Canada’s attempt to rein in Google and Meta shows the limits of what can be achieved going alone against platforms operating internationally. Changing the digital economy in the public interest must be co-ordinated across sectors and levels of governance globally.
Achieving greater transparency and global co-ordination are essential to prevent the enshittification of our collective digital experience.