Leighton Andrews’ Working Paper addresses the unfinished process of regulating Facebook, writes Philip Schlesinger. His analysis provides us with a compendious and up to date account of how, from a range of perspectives, UK regulators have been approaching this complex task.
Despite this specific focus, Andrews’ account has been shaped by his acute sense of how the question of platform regulation is playing out internationally as well as nationally. His study, which has the advantage of providing specific detail along with drawing out the general implications of the case in question, is deeply informed by current debate in regulation studies. It is also very sensitive to the power plays that often make the intended objects of regulation so refractory. Major players are also themselves inclined to engage in regulatory politics, both within and across jurisdictions.
In the course of offering the reader his detailed insights into the various perspectives presently shaping the debate over regulation, Leighton Andrews conceptualises today’s mood for intervention as working itself out through an incremental ‘sense-making’ process, a putting-out of feelers and a flying of trial balloons about how best to handle economic, political, cultural and social questions of increasing urgency.
Taking the UK case as emblematic, this Working Paper shows how the advocacy and conduct of intervention regarding platforms derive from a range of bodies. The production of official and other public discourse comes from ministerial, parliamentary, statutory and non-statutory sources. Andrews’ research therefore connects productively with CREATe’s own current project on platform regulation within the AHRC Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC): https://www.create.ac.uk/platform-regulation-resource-page/. Analogously, we are also seeking to understand underlying logics that connect discourse, institutional actors and the wider interests that constitute the regulatory field.
Anyone tracking Facebook’s manoeuvres will always be behind the latest twist in the story. Although Professor Andrews has done his very best to be up to the minute, more importantly, by taking his distance he has framed the evolution of the tale to offer an interpretation that we should certainly be discussing.
Discussions of platform governance frequently focus on issues of platform liability and online harm to the exclusion of other issues; perpetuate the myth that ‘the internet’ is unregulated; reinforce the same internet exceptionalism as the Silicon Valley companies themselves; and, by adopting the language of governance rather than regulation, diminish the role of the state. Over the last three years, UK governments, lawmakers and regulators, with expert advice, have contributed to the development of a broader range of regulatory concerns and options, leading to an emergent political economy of advertiser-funded platforms. These politicians and regulators have engaged in a process of sense-making, building their discursive capacity in a range of technical and novel issues. Studying an ‘actually existing’ regulatory process as it emerges enables us to look afresh at concepts of platform regulation and governance. This working paper has a particular focus on the regulatory approach to Facebook, which is presented as a case study. But it engages more widely with the issues of platform regulation through a careful interpretive analysis of official documentation from the UK government, regulatory and parliamentary bodies, and company reports. The regulatory process uncovered builds on existing regulatory frameworks and illustrates that platform regulation is a process, not a finished text.
The full paper can be downloaded here.