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“Create more value than you capture”*…

As Donald Trump’s presidency careened to its ignominious end, with a mob of his supporters storming of the US Capitol, Facebook and Twitter banned the US president for inciting the violence. With that act, the scope of the political power wielded by Big Tech became impossible to ignore.

Whether these platforms have too much political power is a debate that is just beginning. Their outsize economic power, though, is unquestionable. The combined market capitalization of the five largest US tech platforms – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – rose by $2.7 trillion in 2020. Following the addition of Tesla to the S&P 500, the Big Six tech firms now represent nearly one-quarter of the index’s valuation. And with the spread of COVID-19, the leading digital platforms have become de facto essential service providers, enabling a mass transition to remote and isolated living.

And yet the political pressure on Big Tech has continued to rise. There is a growing consensus that platforms have been abusing their power, driving profits by exploiting consumer privacy, crushing the competition, and buying up potential rivals.

The economics of platforms is different from the economics of traditional offline and one-sided markets. Policymakers therefore need to reconsider some of their most basic assumptions, asking themselves whether they are even focusing on the right things.

A key challenge is to determine how the value of data diverges from the value created by providing a data-generating service. Platforms have the power to shape how decisions are made, which in turn can alter the value of the data being amassed. The implication, as Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin foresaw in a 1998 paper, is that advertisers or any other third-party interest can embed mixed motives into the design of a digital service. In the case of internet search, the advertising imperative can distract from efforts to improve the core service, because the focus is on the value generated for advertisers rather than for users.

As this example shows, it is necessary to ask who benefits the most from the design of a given service. If a platform’s core mission is to maximize profits from advertising, that fact will shape how it pursues innovation, engages with the public, and designs its products and services.

Moreover, it is important to understand that even if antitrust authorities were empowered to break up companies like Google and Facebook, that would not eliminate the data extraction and monetization that lie at the heart of their business models. Creating competition among a bunch of mini-Facebooks would not weed out such practices, and may even entrench them further as companies race to the bottom to extract the most value for their paying customers…

Digital markets do not have to be extractive and exploitative. They could be quite different, but only if we ourselves start to think differently. We need to recognize, as Adam Smith did, that there is a difference between profits and rents – between the wealth generated by creating value and wealth that is amassed through extraction. The first is a reward for taking risks that improve the productive capacity of an economy; the second comes from seizing an undue share of the reward without providing comparable improvements to the economy’s productive capacity.

For the past half-century, corporate governance has rested on the notion of shareholder value. The result is an economy in which it is increasingly important to differentiate firms that are actually driving innovation from those that are not. There is no shortage of firms that are engaged merely in financial engineering, share buy-backs, and rent-seeking, extracting gains from actual risk takers while under-investing in the goods and services that generate value.

The digital economy has accelerated this conflation of wealth creation and rent extraction, making it all the more difficult to differentiate between the two. The issue is not just that financial intermediaries are shaping how value is created and distributed across firms, but that these extractive mechanisms are embedded within user interfaces; they are baked into digital markets by design…

The proliferation of such practices shows why we need to focus more on the “how” of wealth creation, and less on the “bottom line.” An economy that produces wealth from privacy-respecting innovations would not function anything like one that encourages the systematic exploitation of private data.

But building a new economic foundation will require a shift from the shareholder model to a stakeholder model that embodies a deeper appreciation of public value creation. Wealth and other desirable market outcomes are collectively co-created among public, private, and civic domains, and should be understood as such. Policy analysis and corporate decision-making can no longer be guided solely by concerns about maximizing efficiency. We now also must consider whether wealth generation is actually improving society and strengthening the ability to respond to social challenges.

After all, the fact that platforms are creating wealth does not mean they are creating public value. A firm with access to massive amounts of data and network effects could, in theory, use its position to improve social well-being. But it is unlikely to do so if it is operating under a framework that prizes the generation of advertising revenue over everything else, including the performance of products and services…

Today’s digital economy has grown up around a business model of data and wealth extraction, confounding traditional antitrust paradigms and undermining the public and social value that otherwise could be derived from technological innovation. An acute diagnosis of a fundamental structural challenge, and thoughts on steps to address it– Mariana Mazzucato (@MazzucatoM), Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly), and colleagues: “Reimagining the Platform Economy.” Do click through to read piece read the entire piece.

* Tim O’Reilly

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As we dig deep, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that YouTube was founded and registered (though it didn’t launch until November of that year). The creation of three PayPal vets (Chad HurleySteve Chen, and Jawed Karim), it was bought by Google one year after launch (in November 2006) for $1.65 billion. Operating as one of Google’s subsidiaries, it is now (per Alexa Internet Rankings) the second most trafficked web site, after its parent’s search page.

YouTube logos over time

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Written by LW

February 14, 2021 at 1:01 am

Special “The Irony of It All” Edition…

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Yesterday, in the midst of a wholesale effort to squelch Wiikileaks (e.g., here), The U.S. government announced that it will be hosting World Press Freedom Day in 2011.

Meantime, one can perfectly easily use a Mastercard (or Paypal or Visa) to buy counterfeit products, download porn, purchase guns… but not to donate to Wikileaks…

“Jonathan Swift!  Calling Dr. Jonathan Swift!…”

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