IGF 2017 WS #147 Beyond the next gig: Unpacking development, rights and economic futures in the age of platforms

Short Title: 
Beyond the next gig: Unpacking Platforms

Proposer's Name: Ms. Deepti Bharthur
Proposer's Organization: IT for Change
Co-Proposer's Name: Mr. Nicolo Zingales
Co-Proposer's Organization: Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility
Dr.,Deepti,BHARTHUR,Civil Society,IT for Change
Dr.,Nicolo,ZINGALES,Civil Society,Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility

Additional Speakers: 

Vahini Naidu, South African Permanent Mission, Geneva



1. Context setting: 25 minutes

Speakers will briefly address the issues outlined in the session description, drawing upon their respective work in the areas of data, platforms, digital labour and regulatory and governance issues.

  • Introductory remarks by Anita Gurumurthy (moderator) 5 mins
  • Lightning talks by speakers (4 x 5) 20 mins
    • Viviana Munoz Tellez, will examine key policy challenges in the area of furthering right to knowledge and right to development in the context of platformisation
    • Mark Graham, will discuss the emerging digital work and enterprise models in the platform economy.
    • Luca Belli, will discuss the need for platform regulation through an examination of the ‘Terms of Service’ framework.
    • Anita Gurumurthy, will outline the sweep of issues concerning platform governance and frame the geo-political context of platformization.
    • Vahini Naidu, will comment on how issues of platform economy are being constructed /deliberated upon in global trade talks and policy venues.

2. Brainstorming exercise: 15 mins

In this activity, the attendees will respond to the lightning talks and contribute questions on platform economy through post-its which will be put on a bulletin board. Online questions will also be collated in a similar manner.

3. Open floor discussion: 40 mins

Aided by facilitation from the moderator, panelists will engage with the questions generated through the brain storming exercise. Audience members will also be able to respond, comment and raise counter questions.

4. Concluding remarks by panel: 5 mins



Session Title: Beyond the Next Gig: Unpacking Development, Rights and Economic Futures in the Age of Platforms

Date: December 20, 2017

Time: 10:40AM to 12:10PM

Session Organizers: Deepti Bharthur, IT for Change; Nicolo Zingales, Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility

Chair/Moderator: Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change

Rapporteur/Note-taker: Nandini Chami, IT for Change

List of Speakers and their institutional affiliations: Mark Graham, Oxford Internet Institute; Viviana Munoz, South Centre; Luca Belli, Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility; Sanya Reid Smith, Third World Network

Key Issues raised (1 sentence per issue):

1. The restructuring of critical economic sectors by platform monopolies raises a range of concerns about distributional equity, and social and economic inclusion, which demands effective legal-institutional responses at the international, national and subnational level.

2. A new global movement for fair work is essential to prevent the marginalisation and exploitation of workers in the highly opaque, virtual production networks of the platform economy.

3. The terms of service and invisible algorithms of dominant platforms become a default governance regime in key economic and social sectors, and such privatisation of regulation needs to be checked.

4. Data is a key economic resource in the platform economy; and therefore, data governance frameworks that prevent its expropriation by platform companies are critical for public interest.

If there were presentations during the session, please provide a 1-paragraph summary for each presentation:

Anita Gurumurthy set the stage for the session by highlighting how online platforms are to the digital economy what factories were to the industrial revolution: fundamental sites for the organisation of economic activities. What is worrisome is the parasitic nature of platforms. They produce value by annexing traditional sectors of the economy through monopoly control of marketplace and social interactions, and enclosure of the data commons. This opens up a range of questions for inclusion and economic justice:

  • How can we design new regulatory frameworks at global, national and subnational levels for a more inclusive and fairer digital economy?
  • What can we do to prevent platformisation of the economy from exacerbating existing hierarchies of gender, class and race?
  • How should countries struggling with digitalisation and datafication deal with the new challenges of platformisation?
  • In what ways can we leverage the social value of the data that platforms generate?

Mark Graham spoke about the changing nature of employment in the platform economy, highlighting how labour surplus in the global South has led to reduced bargaining power of platform workers. Further, the lack of labour regulation of platform work has contributed to exploitative labour practices: low wages, exhaustion and sleep deprivation are part of the everyday life of the average online worker. The precariousness of labour and the threat of being easily replaceable prevents workers from collectivising. And the dispersed geography of work leads to a lot of opacity in these virtual production networks. Client firms may not even know about minimum wages standards in the countries to which they are outsourcing to. To deal with this situation, we need a fair work movement akin to the fair trade movement. The Fair Work Foundation project is attempting to do by creating certification standards for digital work platforms.

Viviana Munoz noted how huge inequalities continue to exist in the digital society. Our social networks may be expanding, but we have no sense of community. In the sphere of economics, though there are a few alternative digital platforms, on the whole, the dominant model is that of capitalism. The nature of the platform economy, specifically its underlying network effect logic, means that there can only be limited number of players in the market. This opens up new challenges for equity. And in the sphere of politics, we see the rising role of private actors in the platform economy and the push for self-regulation, which raises new questions for democratic accountability.

Luca Belli spoke of the risks of delegating regulation to private platforms whose main role is not the protection of public interest but the maximisation of ‘for-profit’ functions. Because transnational platforms unilaterally define their terms of service, they have emerged as quasi-regulatory powers. They are also somewhat feudal – private platforms do not grant the user any bargaining power; it is a “take it or leave it kind of situation”. Further, platforms can fashion new laws through algorithms, details of which are not available in the terms of reference. In this context, when we talk about shaping the digital future, which is the theme of the current IGF, “we should help people construct the digital future by themselves and not end up being digitally colonized”. Equipping them understand how they are regulated by the “law of the platform” is key to this. Most importantly, data is the key resource in the platform economy and currently, platforms have absolute control over your data. Once you leave it on a platform, you cannot withdraw. Therefore, we may need to explore an individual-centred model instead of a platform-centred model where we have data custodians who handle your data, keep it in an open format, and let you determine how you will use it.

Sanya Reid Smith reflected on the emerging debates in WTO negotiations on digital trade and e-commerce, and their implications for an inclusive platform economy. At MC 11, seventy countries said that they wanted to negotiate e-commerce rules, though this is not part of the mandate of the WTO. If these proposed rules are accepted, it will curtail the ability of developing countries to regulate the digital economy. For example, there's a proposal by Japan for cross border data flows at all times with no privacy exceptions. This means countries will have absolutely no room to require data to be stored locally, even in the case of sensitive data sets such as health data/ financial data. Though there is a general privacy exception that can be invoked, this is not useful as it can be deployed only in relation to those laws which are already consistent with WTO rules. Another key concern is that the proposals may not address the current problems of workers and small and medium enterprises being squeezed by the unfair practices of platform companies. And governments may not be able to inspect the source code of dominant platforms to check if they are abusing their dominant position for unfair economic advantage. Finally, how do we decide where computing services rules must be applied and where sectoral legislation must apply? For example, take the case of Amazon: is it a retail service or a transport or computer related service or logistic service.

Please describe the discussions that took place during the workshop session (3 paragraphs):

Comments from the floor:

  • The challenge of deciding which set of laws/ rules would apply to digital platforms may get exacerbated in the case of super apps.
  • The financial regulation of platforms, especially their taxation aspects, is an important area to address.
  • The Github model may offer a viable alternative for the creation of terms of reference in democratic and participatory ways.
  • We need to reflect on whether the multistakeholder model can meet the governance challenges of the platform economy.
  • We can think about a data approach to make microwork platforms more accountable, by forcing them to open up information and data about their working conditions.
  • We need an individualised and a collectivised response to data governance. We also need to ensure that our data governance models further the public interest. Therefore, it may be important to establish a public authority that acts a custodian of data who is independent of the executive and can audit data corporations, and adjudicate on anti-competitive practices.

Responses from the panelists:

  • Luca Belli noted that super-apps were more an exception than a rising trend. He also highlighted that though there may be a few examples of participatory platform regulators, it is important to recognise that there may be motivated/biased platform regulators who need to be checked.
  • Sanya Reid Smith highlighted that proposed e-commerce rules disallowing the inspection of source code of tax preparation software of TNCs may make the detection of tax evasion difficult.
  • Anita Gurumurthy reflected on the need for public value models of data which would ensure that our right to data is not just limited to choosing between data custodians, but serves as a guarantee that data will be deployed only for social good.

Please describe any participant suggestions regarding the way forward/ potential next steps /key takeaways (3 paragraphs):

  • We need to force microwork platforms to be accountable by opening up information/data about work practices to worker unions.
  • A public interest model for leveraging the social value of data must be created.
  • In the future IGFs, it would be important to continue the debate on making the platform economy work for the rights-and-inclusion agenda.

Gender Reporting

Estimate the overall number of the participants present at the session: 42

Estimate the overall number of women present at the session: 20

To what extent did the session discuss gender equality and/or women’s empowerment? If the session addressed issues related to gender equality and/or women’s empowerment, please provide a brief summary of the discussion:

When setting the stage for the session, the moderator explicitly flagged the need to map the impacts of the platform economy on crystallising existing socio-structural hierarchies. She pointed to the reconstitution of gendered labour hierarchies, because of the platformisation of care work; and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles through the ratings systems of tourism platforms.


Contact Information

United Nations
Secretariat of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

Villa Le Bocage
Palais des Nations,
CH-1211 Geneva 10

igf [at] un [dot] org
+41 (0) 229 173 678