K. Sabeel Rahman discusses the prospects for remedying private platform power in the 21st century.
The informational, economic, and political influence of the dominant tech platforms — Google, Facebook, and Amazon in particular — has become a central topic of debate. In this talk, K. Sabeel Rahman argues that these firms are best understood as the core infrastructure of our 21st century economy and public sphere. The infrastructural power of these firms raises a range of policy questions. What exactly about these firms (e.g., their accumulation of data, their gatekeeping functions, their control over vital public and economic functions like retail delivery or online speech) is “infrastructural?” How should these infrastructural functions be governed and regulated, in light of both their economic and political influence?
Professor Rahman sketches some tentative answers to these questions, drawing on the intellectual history of early 20th century “public utility regulation,” where reformers developed a compelling approach to diagnosing and remedying the problem of private power over the essential infrastructure of the industrial economy, from railroads to finance.
This history suggests some design principles and opens up some novel implications for addressing the problem of platform power in the digital economy. The talk explores more contemporary analogies and applications in the context of our current debates over informational platforms, big data, AI, and algorithms, in order to sketch out some principles for what a public utility-style regulatory approach to Internet platforms would look like.
K. Sabeel Rahman is a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, an Assistant Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
Rahman’s research focuses on the themes of democracy, inequality, and power. His first book, Democracy Against Domination (Oxford University Press, 2017) examines how democratic ideals fueled reform movements in the Progressive Era, and what their implications might be in today’s post-financial crisis debates about economic inequality. His current research extends this critique of economic power and domination to address questions about technology platforms, economic inequality, and the crisis of American democracy today. In addition to his academic writings in law, political theory, and political science, he has written for a variety of venues including The Atlantic, The New Republic, Boston Review, Dissent, The Nation, and others.
Rahman has worked extensively with policymakers, funders, and advocacy groups in developing strategies and novel approaches to questions of democracy and economic inequality. In 2014-15 he served as a Special Advisor on strategies for inclusive economic development in New York City, and from 2015-16 as a Public Member of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. From 2013-2016, Rahman was the Design Director for the Gettysburg Project, an interdisciplinary initiative working with organizers, academics, and funders to develop new strategies for civic engagement and building civic capacity. In addition, Rahman is on the Board of The New Press, a non-profit publisher focusing on publishing books in the public interest, and United to Protect Democracy, a legal advocacy group battling current threats to American democratic institutions.
Rahman earned his AB at Harvard College summa cum laude in Social Studies and returned to Harvard for his JD at Harvard Law School and his PhD in the Harvard Government Department. He also has degrees in Economics and Sociolegal Studies from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Data & Society’s “Databites” speaker series presents timely conversations about the purpose and power of technology, bridging our interdisciplinary research with broader public conversations about the societal implications of data and automation.