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XIAO Mengli | From Platform Governance to Governance Platforms
2024-04-26 [author] XIAO Mengli preview:

From Platform Governance to Governance Platforms

XIAO Mengli

XIAO Mengli, a native of Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, has a PhD in Jurisprudence from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and a postdoctoral degree from East China University of Political Science and Law, and is currently working at the School of Law, East China University of Science and Technology, where she serves as the Deputy Director of the Research Centre of Sociology of Law. Her research fields are sociology of law and legal policy, and she is committed to exploring the governance change and rights relief in the digital society. She has published many articles in SSCI journals such as VOLUNTAS, CSSCI Journals such as Journal of National Prosecutors College, Exploration and Free Views, Wuhan University Journal of Humanity and Social Science, Journal of Nanjing University (Philosophy-Humanities-Social Science), Securities Market Herald, Contemporary Communication, and so on. She has presided three provincial and ministerial-level projects. 2021 won the third prize of the fourth (2020) National Youth Theory Innovation Award of Exploration and Free View. She has published two collections of personal essays and dozens of literary works in journals at provincial level and above.


It was in September 2011, as I recall, that I received an email from an undergraduate student expressing a willingness to apply for my master's degree. Because she had published a book of essays in high school, and the topic she planned to study was academically interesting, I was deeply impressed and immediately replied to welcome her, and provided a list of literature to read and advice on how to manage her studies. This student is Xiao Mengli, who started her master's degree in September 2012 with me. Mengli is quite talented and active, and her research is progressing very well and not too much trouble for her supervisor. As if inadvertently, she completed a series of required actions such as getting married, having a baby, publishing a paper, obtaining a doctoral degree, and taking up a job, just like playing rhythmic stomping music. From the time she entered her doctoral stage, she turned to in-depth examination and analysis of those rising Internet platform enterprises as well as the related governance and legal issues, and published several papers of considerable merit. Now, the results of these researches have been consolidated into a monograph and published, and she wants me to write a preface, which of course I am glad to do.

The book has a clear sense of the problem, which is to elaborate the self-regulation and external monitoring of online platforms from the perspective of risk society and accountability mechanism. Adopting a sociology of law approach, the authors provide perspectives from different angles, pointing out that platforms have the dual attributes of both enterprises and markets, and form a sort of trinity of innovative mechanisms of governance - flexible credit evaluation, implicit transaction cancellation, and rigid power of punishment. The essence of such governance through platforms lies in self-regulation, but is accompanied by risks of system failure, data security, and monopoly of interests. For this reason, risk communication between platforms and users as well as the government needs to be strengthened, and mandatory initiatives from the outside are needed to prevent risks such as platform failure and autonomy abuse from turning into real harm. Here, public participation and accountability are two key operational levers. In terms of accountability alone, it is important to establish a more rational regulatory framework through typologies of liability.

As we all know, during the Internet 2.0 phase, China initially adopted legal policies that encouraged digital communication and interaction as well as innovation and entrepreneurship, and both the executive and judicial powers were happy to see big data continue to accumulate and generate economic value, which led to the rapid formation of online platform giants represented by Tencent, Alibaba, Jitterbug, Baidu, Ctrip, and others. As the author of this book point out, out of practical necessity and legitimisation considerations, the platforms were not only able to exercise extensive autonomy, but even enjoyed extensive and powerful algorithmic powers in place of the government to regulate transactional activities on the platforms. However, from 2018 onwards, the impact of the market dominance of these platforms, as well as the security of personal information, began to receive widespread attention, and legal policies began to be adjusted in an attempt to limit the market behaviour of the platform giants. 2020 saw the Chinese government take categorical antitrust initiatives against certain large online platforms.

While reading the book and reviewing the development process of "Internet Plus", the image of a Sovereign Leviathan and a group of Platform Behemoths playing with each other suddenly came to my mind. As Francis Fukuyama points out, China has had a strong executive state since the Qin Dynasty, and the social revolutions of the 20th century have created an unprecedentedly gigantic Sovereign Leviathan. In the era of reform and opening up, the constant operation of market mechanisms led to a gradual expansion of individual freedoms and the rapid rise of tech companies, especially online platforms, creating a scoring society and algorithm-fuelled power. However, after entering the digital era, this sovereign Leviathan has transformed itself and evolved into an Algorithm Leviathan through cyberspace, monitoring the algorithmic boosting of enterprises and the online cooperation between individuals.

From late 2022, ChatGPT took the world by storm and empowered individuals as well as platform companies. According to incomplete statistics, by May 2023, Chinese tech companies and online platforms launched 79 AI Big Models of various types, of which 34 were general-purpose Big Models. This means that Sovereign Leviathan faces challenges from dozens of powerful Large Model Behemoths in addition to Platform Monsters. On the other hand, the application of blockchain technology has led to the rapid popularisation of Internet 3.0 in China, and in the gaming meta-universe, the social meta-universe, and the industrial meta-universe, everyone has become a sovereign, and the rules of the community have become the basis of the order of the virtual space. This means that Sovereign Leviathan also faces challenges from 1.4 billion Sovereign Individuals.

In light of the great changes that are constantly being shaped and reconfigured by the combined forces of the aforementioned pentagon, the Chinese government's response is to corral and integrate dozens of big model monsters as well as platform monsters through a unified base model, and to guard against the risk of uncontrolled peer-to-peer interactions between sovereign individuals through a sovereign blockchain. The result will inevitably create an algorithmic leviathan of immense scale and mana. As Michel Foucault foresaw, this algorithmic leviathan is in fact a kind of panoramic open-view device. Here, billions of probes form traps of sight, creating the kind of surveillance society and surveillance culture depicted by David León. This algorithmic Leviathan is so ubiquitous and powerful that its abuse can only be prevented by fair procedures embedded in the AI system and by the separation of powers and checks and balances between different AI systems. Of course, public participation or Democratic AI, as highlighted in this book, will also be needed for consent-based and flexible regulation.

In the introduction to the book, the author begins by pursuing the poignant questions of what platforms are, what they can do, and what they have changed, and provides an in-depth and comprehensive examination and answer. In the extension of this line of thought it can also be argued that after entering the era of big models and generative artificial intelligence, platform governance as well as governance platforms are further causing various essential changes that alter the shape of the social order. In particular, the modern rule of law's principle of procedural justice, as well as the communication and accountability mechanisms of the risk society, will also be redefined and play an even more important role in the complex relationship between the interactions between the sovereignty leviathan, the algorithmic leviathan, the platform monsters, the big-model monsters, and the individual's sense of sovereignty. This, I believe, is the value of sociology of law research on scoring societies, digital states, algorithmic fuelling, and platform governance. Meng Li, who is already the deputy director of the Sociology of Law Research Centre at the East China University of Science and Technology, may be considering and laying out new topics for theoretical and empirical analysis in the digital transformation, and I look forward to more and better treatises from her in the future.

It is all for the preface.

Ji Weidong
2023 Duanwu


In the face of this new form of organisation of the platform, there are many questions we want to ask, and many answers that remain unfinished when unfolding this series of questions on the scroll, the first thing we want to know is:

1. What exactly is a platform? Platform enterprises have both corporate and marketplace attributes, making it difficult to match the existing regulatory model. Platforms have the characteristics of attracting transaction volume with network effects and reducing transaction costs with efficient search and matching capabilities, and the exit of users from a single platform is not as simple as leaving the United States for Russia. The core transaction element of platforms is data rather than commodities; data is not oil, and its value is based on the basic premise of large-scale aggregation. The use of data by platform enterprises is not simply to earn a difference in price, but hope to improve decision-making efficiency through data production and algorithmic prediction, and ultimately generate excess returns.

2. What can the platform do? Is the platform doing a good job? Platforms are not vicious beasts, and naturally need to attract users on both sides of the fence through self-restraint and self-governance. It seems that large platforms with excellent compliance and a sense of corporate responsibility can truly stand on their own. Platform autonomy is a potential result of tacit collusion between government regulators and businesses: on the one hand, strong "command-and-control" regulation is not suitable for the heterogeneous field of emerging technologies, and it is difficult to avoid incomplete laws and insufficient enforcement. On the other hand, self-regulation, with its informational and structural advantages, can effectively mitigate the dichotomy in risk perception, which in turn reduces the government's regulatory costs and responsibilities.

3. What has the platform changed? Internet platforms are experiencing a rapid rise and overdrive, and are invading every individual's daily life with sweeping force. Platforms have changed our distance, the shape of our existence, and even who we really are through the subtle control of algorithms. Amazon's expected deliveries, social platforms' manipulation of specific topics and precise tweets have had a profound impact on the shape of our lives, leading us to live a life that caters to algorithms.

4. How do platforms need to be managed? While platform companies are endeavouring to self-regulate and create a better image, the new power structure creates new risks that cannot be eliminated. Most of the time, the power of platform companies is not expressed in the traditional sense of "repression" and "censorship", but more as a form of "consent" based on the use of code, software, architecture and protocols that penetrate "the most subtle individual behaviours".

Citizen power and platform power influence each other; state power may be circumvented by platform power, or it may shape, or even incorporate, platform power. Different stages of development and different types of platforms actively choose or passively accept different power relations. Platform enterprises use power to construct "determiners" and "determined influencers", which is a prerequisite for the emergence of various risks.

Given the diffuse nature of risk in modern societies and the regenerative nature of risk in platform autonomy, there is a need to strengthen the efficiency and credibility of risk communication in the "platform-government-user" relationship. Platform companies should break down technical issues into understandable discourse, explaining all aspects of rule creation, modification and enforcement, and move from seeking "openness" to pursuing "transparency". The dual role of platforms as self-regulators and masters of expert knowledge makes it easy to be wary of the complicity of knowledge, capital and power, and therefore requires the entry of democratic concepts to make the operation of platform rights visible. This obligation to explain should be non-compulsory, with all parties working together to create a strong external pressure on platforms to set their own limits and improve their risk communication mechanisms.

If potential risks evolved into substantial harm, platform enterprises would also be subject to mandatory "attribution of liability". Risk regulation by self-regulation takes into account the costs of disorder and the costs of power, and leads to a choice between self-regulation, judicial intervention and administrative regulation and nationalisation. Specific attribution of responsibility can refer to the "constant total intensity of regulation" and the existence of regulatory ladders in different types of platform enterprises. Different stages and types of platform enterprises should choose appropriate external intervention modes by integrating risk control and cost-benefit factors, and infiltrate the spirit of the precautionary principle and the responsiveness principle into the regulatory process, so as to achieve a balance between respecting self-regulation, protecting users' rights and interests, and promoting industrial innovation.

This book studies the generative pattern of platform power through detailed sociological analysis of law, conducts in-depth analysis of the innovative governance mechanism of platforms, not only devotes itself to the practical response to the society, but also tries to find the theoretical propositions in the collision of technology and civilisation, such as the conflict between quantified ego and scoring society, the weakness of the protection of human rights in the digital age and the loss of subjectivity, etc., and finally provides some useful suggestions for platform governance from the dual perspectives of legal norms and social governance.