The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Petros Stefaneas, Prodromos Tsiavos, Theodoros Karounos: The platform as a mirror: understanding regulatory ecologies through their interactions with mega-platforms

Petros Stefaneas, National Technical University of Athens (NTUA)

Prodromos Tsiavos (Media Institute UCL) and Theodoros Karounos (NTUA and GFOSS)

Objective of this paper is to explore the features of different regulatory cultures and systems through their interactions with mega-platforms. By developing a taxonomy around the regulatory and policy responses to the advent of mega-platforms, we are able to better understand both the mechanics and the nature of a regulatory system.

Our main argument is that the more polycentric or multi-modal a regulatory system is, the more likely it is to be able to provide an adequate response to the invasion of mega-platforms in its habitat.

Mega-platforms, such as the Google ecosystem, Uber, AirBnB or even Wikipedia operate in a way which is both more pervasive and more invasive compared to traditional companies or technologies: they are not just companies offering services or technologies to be regulated; rather, they constitute themselves regulatory ecosystems, with their own logic, operations and norms. More frequently than not, they operate in contrast to the mandate of formal regulatory systems or they allow the creation of a new regulatory space which they define and that operates as a form of an exodus from the existing rule of law. Evolving in parallel, the law itself has long ceased to operated as a mono-centric system. Increasingly, it operates as a mixture of markets, technologies and social norms that seeks to achieve its regulatory objectives through a variety of complex and not always fully controllable interactions.

A locus where this kind of interaction or clash is most prominently displayed is that of the city, and the context in which it is most clearly illustrated is that of the sharing and collaborative economy.

The city is the best possible locus to explore such interaction, precisely because it constitutes a unit that places particular emphasis in material infrastructures, e.g. transport, public health, sanitation but also immaterial services, such as culture, entrepreneurship and e-government. While some years ago, the two strands of services were quite clearly separated, today we increasingly see them as hybrid services that have very strong both digital and physical elements. Such services would be traditionally offered either by public or by private entities and the main question would be the most efficient mixture of public-private management of such services. Increasingly, however, a large portion of these services is either offered by communities or coops or by private entities that operate in the realms of the sharing economy. Moreover, as public, private and community players enter in some form of decentralized and crowd-based form of offering such services, two major questions emerge: (a) what kind of policies are required in order to manage such sharing or collaboration based service offering; and (b) what is the best regulatory response so as to achieve the best possible service level and at the same time maintain the policy objectives of the state/ city.

In order to explore these questions in a more systematic way, we embark in the exploration of four case studies of cities in four different countries that have different approaches to the phenomenon of the sharing and collaborative economy. These have as follows:

(a) Athens: it is a city that has been hit by the economic crisis of the past seven years. It has a fairly traditional model of offering different egov services to the citizens. It does not seem to have an explicit policy on openness or a response to the sharing economy and its regulatory system is mostly mono-centric, primarily based on law.

(b) Barcelona: it is a city that has also been hit by the crisis, but not to the extent that Athens has. It is the collaborative economy capital of Europe with a vibrant civil society, home to the biggest FabLab in Europe (IAAC FabLab), the Gotteo crowdfunding platform and some of the most important collectives.

(c) London: it is a global mega-city, where both the sharing and collaborative platforms are part of the City policies and services. It is mostly driven by the economy and the services that sharing economy platforms offer to a global audience.

(d) Seoul: it is a city that has an explicit Sharing City vision with a concrete set of objectives focusing on the opening of data and government services, the encouragement of sharing economy platforms and the active involvement of global companies.

For each of the aforementioned cases, we perform an analysis of their response both in terms of policy and regulation in the following indicative areas of the sharing/collaboration economy:

> EGov: open data sets, degree of openness in governance, use of wikis, use of crowdsourcing plaforms

> Culture/ Tourism: sharing economy applications, use of open or sharing platforms for culture

> Fabrication: use of FabLabs and open spaces; formal policies on open and collaborative spaces, economic activity

> Entrepreneurship: hackathons, global platforms that have originated from or are operating in the cities

The theoretical framework we are following for this paper draws from multiple sources. In terms of regulation theory we are primarily based on the work by Lessig and Black in order to classify regulatory responses in accordance to a polycentric or multi-modal regulatory model. In such a model we seek to explore the interaction between hybrid ecosystems, as we believe the city, the legal system with its paraphernalia and the mega-platforms to be. We deny the strict separation of digital and physical entities; inspired by art-theory and socio-materiality studies, we propose a post-digital form of understanding regulatory ecologies: we argue that in such a context, it is the regulatory features, rather than analytical categories between material and immaterial, that take precedent. We, hence, need an approach that focuses on the interactions between regulatory ecologies rather than modalities of regulation in order to provide a meaningful assessment of what the most appropriate response to the mega-platforms should be. It is in that sense that the regulatory platform operates as a mirror, revealing the core elements not just of our regulatory response but of the broader regulatory culture in which it is placed.

Petros Stefaneas, Prodromos Tsiavos, Theodoros Karounos