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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 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.


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