Investigating the Hegemony of Digital Platforms: What INCA is about

22 December 2023 By

While promoting economic growth and labour transformations, digital platforms pose challenges to policymakers and citizens in relation to people’s participation in decision-making processes, wealth inequalities and erosion of trust in public institutions. In particular, so-called GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft)[1] are becoming more and more infrastructures for opinion-making, labour organization and political debate. Their increasing power in shaping and influencing such issues opened up a heated debate on the way to deal with these transformations. While European societies grew up based on liberal democracies and institutions with their capacity to sustain a coordinated market economy, today their role seems to be reduced because of the difficulties in regulating platforms’ corporate power that spread through politics, economy and culture.

Therefore, whereas recurrent narratives on the threats of digital capitalism are largely focused on the increasing market power of Big Tech and the connected challenges for the functioning of market economies, the INCA project rather addresses the systemic risk and the menaces to democracies and institutions brought about by the multifaceted and articulated hegemonic practices put in place by digital capitalists.

Thus, INCA examines the hegemony of large digital platforms in three directions.

Firstly, INCA investigates how platforms deploy all their power first and particularly in the economic sphere. The digitalisation of our social and working life created the conditions for digital platforms to move with apparently less spatial bonds and often disintermediating labour collective contracts or bargaining institutions. This approach poses serious challenges to workers’ individual and collective rights as well as discloses the difficulties that States and the European Union have in exercising effective mediation or control on big transnational and digital corporations such as GAFAM.

Secondly, INCA inspects how digital platforms are able to deploy their financial endowments to apply strong political power. Examining lobbying expenses in the European Union, in 2022, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have been the top spenders with lobbying expenses above, respectively, 7, 8 and 7 million euros; well above traditionally top spenders such as Bayer and Shell that spent around 6 million euros. Between 2015 and 2022, the average compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of GAFAM’s lobbying expenses has been above 25%. Looking more specifically at corporates’ behaviour, Facebook and Apple report a CAGR, respectively, above 50% and almost 40%; they seem to be latecomers that are catching up rapidly. On the other hand, Google and Microsoft have invested heavily since 2015, and Amazon reached the level of lobbying expenses of almost 3 million euros.

Moreover, digital platforms play a crucial role in the (re)definition of territories: let’s think, for example, of how logistic platforms and their infrastructures have changed urban landscapes and global connections in recent decades, or how much social habits have been transformed by the use of digital tools for navigation or social activities. From this point of view, INCA considers the role of GAFAMs in the implementation of new public infrastructures governed by private strategies as political aspects with a strong impact on urban governance and democracy.

Finally, GAFAM do not only have a direct influence on the law-making process or industrial relations, but they indirectly influence such spheres indirectly as they shape public opinion too. In this light, INCA analyses how platforms constantly produce a narrative on themselves – the positive and appealing impact of digital technologies, the usability of e-commerce, the flexibility of platform labour, and the social benefits these corporations spread – through their activities, on media, with advertisements. The risk is to reduce the public debate to a flat and passive endorsement while policymakers have difficulties orienting their regulatory activities.

For sure, platforms grew up in many cases moving through the empty spaces of existing legislative codes. However, European institutions increasingly perceive how, veiled under the curtain of an overly optimistic picture of a digital society, in which democratic and open access to information, goods and services is there for everyone, technological advancement may come with potential threats.

In this perspective, the European Commission’s Political Guidelines set for 2019-2024 include among its strategic priorities A Europe fit for the digital age and A new push for European democracy. In addition, the Digital Market Act and the Digital Service Act have been promulgated that respectively regulate competition in digital markets and mitigate the undesirable social effects of the provision of digital services.

Yet, the digital strategies and priorities of the European Union have been conceived of and have been implemented under strong political pressure exerted by GAFAM. What is the impact of such political activities on the European regulatory framework built to regulate digital capitalism?

To address these questions, the INCA project on the one hand contributes to the debate with guidelines, conceptual tools and data, the overall aim of which is to support policymakers in achieving a better understanding of the social, economic, infrastructural, and political aspects of the increasing role of digital platforms on our daily life. On the other hand, INCA plays a watchdog role to monitor the way in which the political activity of GAFAM pushes to mould policymaking.

In this light, INCA is not only a research project; it is also a political project with the ambition to create a Think Tank that both will scrutinise the evolving relationships between GAFAM, politics and society and will organise a number of cultural activities aimed at and keeping alive critical thinking of citizens. Indeed, a central assumption is that the continuous production and dissemination of informed points of view, which may be conveyed with the support of a repertoire of cultural and artistic activities, is a necessary condition for nurturing a counter-hegemonic possibility.

[1] We interpret the label “GAFAM” as the instantiation of the concept of “digital platforms” since this latter, in our theorization is a signifier for both infrastructural and sectoral platforms (Van Dijck, J., Poell, M. and De Waal, M. (2019), The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World, Oxford University Press, pp. 12-13).