Richard Godden: “Platform Capitalism” by Nick Srnicek

 

Those who have studied modern technology based or enabled companies will doubtless consider Platform Capitalism to be superficial. Srnicek does not provide any worked through suggestions that will be useful either to the makers of public policy or to those involved in the management of business and many of his conclusions are contentious and appear to be based more on his prior left-wing accelerationist philosophical position than on the evidence presented in this book.

And yet: the book is interesting and thought provoking. Leaving aside the eccentric use (or, rather, minimal use) of paragraphing, Srnicek has an engaging style and presents a readable and helpful overview of the impact of technology on economic activity and of the strategy of technology companies. The book is short (l29 small pages) and can easily be read carefully in a couple of evenings. It is worth devoting this time to it.

Srnicek’s subject is the effect of digital technology on capitalism. He claims that “the platform” has emerged as a new business model and his aim is “to set these platforms in the context of a larger economic history, understand them as a means to generate profit, and outline some tendencies they produce as a result” (page 6). After a reasonably orthodox (if very obviously left-wing) review of economic and business trends since the 1970’s (primarily focussed on the USA and UK), he moves on to consider the emergence of “platforms”, which he defines as “digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact” (page 43). He distinguishes five types of these: advertising platforms (e.g. the Google search engine), which allow their owners to extract information on users, undertake analysis, and use the product of this to sell advertising space; cloud platforms (e.g. Amazon Web Services), which comprise hardware and software that is rented out to digital-dependent businesses; industrial platforms (e.g. that of GE), which comprise the hardware and software necessary to transform traditional manufacturing; product platforms (e.g. that of Rolls Royce), which transform a traditional good into a service; and lean platforms (e.g. that of Uber), which are like product platforms but whose owners attempt to reduce their ownership of assets to a minimum.

The analysis of each of these business models is much the most interesting part of Platform Capitalism. Srnicek concludes, perhaps surprisingly, that lean platforms “seem likely to fall apart in coming years” (page 88) but he recognises that the other types of platform are here to stay. He sees some benefits in this (e.g. better products for customers) but his main focus is on the concerns to which the emergence of platforms gives rise.

His biggest concern is the perceived monopolistic tendency of platform capitalism. He returns to this on a number of occasions and asks “Will competition survive in the digital era, or are we headed for a new monopoly capitalism?” (page 94). This is certainly a question that needs to be addressed but, Srnicek’s analysis points to various factors that suggest that there will continue to be significant competition among the platform providers. Nonetheless, his prognosis is bleak. “Let us be clear,” he says, “this is ….. the concentration of ownership” and, he continues, “Far from being mere owners of information, these companies are becoming owners of the infrastructures of society” (page 92). This is surely unduly apocalyptic.

Srnicek’s other major concern relates to labour. It is here that his left-wing philosophy is most apparent. He points to some real concerns (e.g. the mis-labelling of employees as independent contractors with a view to avoiding employment protections) and he dismisses the absurd idea that user-created data comprises the exploiting of free labour. However, he makes many statements that rely on assumptions that are at best dubious. For example, his suggestion that “In a healthy economy [people such as Uber drivers] would have no need to be micro-tasking, as they would have proper jobs” (page 82) seems to be based on the assumption that the job market of, perhaps, 50 to 70 years ago is the only acceptable model and smacks of left-wing nostalgia for the days of manufacturing-based factory capitalism. Likewise, his suggestion that companies such as Airbnb have “off-loaded costs from their balance sheet and shifted them to their workers” (page 83) suggests preference for the rigidities of integrated corporate monoliths over the more flexible models permitted by modern technology.

The book also suffers in some places from loose use of terminology. For example, Srnicek several times mentions (with apparent disapproval) the “cross-subsidisation” that he believes is inherent in some platform business models (e.g. Googles) that involve providing a free service that enables advertising space to be sold. This use of the term is eccentric. Google is no more involved in cross-subsidisation than are the owners of commercial television stations or free local newspapers that have historically survived by selling advertising space. It is hard to see what is wrong with the Google “cross-subsidisation” model from a competitive or any other point of view.

More seriously, Srnicek’s frequent attacks on “tax evasion” are mis-directed. Many people are rightly concerned about tax evasion but he confuses illegal evasion with legitimate tax minimisation. In particular, he seems unaware that, pursuant to express US law, US corporations may legally avoid the payment of US tax on foreign profits for so long as these are not repatriated. He may not like the relevant US legislation but there is logic behind it and, in any event, companies can hardly be criticised for making use of it. His statement that “The leaders of tax evasion have …… been tech companies” (page 59) followed by a list of well-known names, without any supporting evidence, is both disturbing and disappointing.

The final section of the book (relating to what the future may hold) is less disturbing but equally disappointing. One idea is piled on another. In less than two pages, there are suggestions of: co-operative platforms; anti-trust action; regulation of, or even the banning of, lean platforms; co-ordinated action on tax; the creation of “platforms owned and controlled by the people”, which must nonetheless be “independent of the surveillance State apparatus”; “post capitalist platforms” (whatever they might be); and the collectivisation of platforms (pages 127/8). None of these ideas is explored and one may doubt the realism of at least some of them and the practical benefits of others.

This is a pity because there are many issues arising from “platform capitalism” that should be explored by both policy makers and those involved in business. What are the implications for privacy and, indeed, personal freedom and how should we respond to these? What kind of protections for “workers” are practicable and appropriate in a digital world? Where do the responsibilities of the platform companies to employees, customers, suppliers and others begin and end and how can they best discharge them? What kinds of regulatory regimes (if any) are needed for this kind of company and how can they be imposed in a digital, cross-border world? Generally, what does responsible digital business look like?

Srnicek fails to offer any insights into these matters. None-the-less, his analysis of the platform companies is important because it should help others to do so. It should also help all of us to note the way in which the business world is moving and avoid suggesting outdated solutions to modern business problems.

 

“Platform Capitalism” was first published in 2017 by Polity Press (ISBN 1509504869, 9781509504862), 120pp.


Richard_GoddenRichard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.