IGP’s conference on “Comparative Analysis of Platform Governance in the U.S. and China” brought together 21 papers and 30 scholars and policy influencers for three days of intensive (bilingual) discussion.
Digital platforms and the data they generate are now the focus of business, government and civil society all over the world. One thing the United States and China have in common, despite the mistrust and conflict emanating from both sides, is that they have given birth to the world’s largest platforms. Amazon and Alibaba, Twitter and Weibo, WhatsApp and WeChat, Alphabet and Baidu, Apple and Huawei are the giants in the global digital platform economy. No companies from other regions can compare to them.
Despite the huge differences in their political systems, both the U.S. and China are wrestling with similar platform governance issues. Platform governance spans a range of issues, including trade policy, content governance, competition policy, security, privacy, and financial innovation. The conference tried to cover all of these areas, encouraging scholars from the West and the East to engage in sober, objective analysis of problems in platform governance and to compare the way the two systems of political economy were handling them. The participants all remarked on how much they learned from the comparisons. Below we provide brief introductions to the papers and links to recordings of them.
Institutions and Trade
Professor Xu Peixi, (Communication U) “Governing the rise of market and grassroots,” placed China’s platforms in the context of the historic shift toward the introduction of market forces into the Chinese economy after 1978. Focusing on the regulation of online audio-video platforms and ride-hailing platforms, Prof Xu showed how, from CCTV to Tiktok, the window for private ownership of audio-visual services was widened even when formal law did not allow it. He also explained why 7 different ministries or agencies were involved in the regulation of ride-hailing platforms. Recording. Slides.
Professor Milton Mueller and PhD candidate Karim Farhat (Georgia Tech) analyzed “Regulation of market access by the U.S. and China: Neo-mercantilism in digital services.” Their paper noted that China’s big platforms emerged from entrepreneurs in a competitive market and were not products of protectionist state industrial policy. They compared and contrasted the way both countries were tightening restrictions on entry into each other’s digital economy, noting that both based their restrictions on national security claims rather than trade policy. Digital neomercantilism was the label they attached to this fusion of trade, geopolitics, and national security. Recording. Slides.
Professor Cuihong Cai (Fudan U) wrote about “US-China relations as volatile variables for platform governance.” She noted that despite the general trend in China to accelerate the pace of opening up, due to changes in U.S. relations the focus of its platform governance has shifted from “loose marketization” to more focus on security and “the ability of platforms to resist external influences.” Recording. Slides.
Dr. Joanne Gray (Queensland U of Technology) served as a discussant. Noting that China and US interventions in the tech sector affect us all, she agreed that both countries were fetishizing data and underestimating the importance of globalized markets, and asked how we might move beyond both Chinese and American hegemony in the platform economy. Recording.
The second session focused on the contentious area of content governance. In her paper, “Comparative study on the state’s underlying principles for platform governance,” Researcher Jufang Wang (Oxford) focused on why the two states regulate content. She defined their underlying principles as freedom of speech (US) and public opinion management (China). The American principle can lead to both conflict and cooperation with the state, whereas the Chinese principle leads to collaborative governance between the platforms and the state. Recording. Slides.
Professor Yik-Chan Chin (Beijing Normal U) and her colleagues provided “A comparative study of disinformation governance in Chinese and American social media platforms.” They provided a detailed comparison of the various forms of self-regulation, co-regulation and external regulation affecting disinformation, deep fakes, and similar phenomena – including what the Chinese call “rumors,” – in the two countries. Recording.
Dr. Farzaneh Badii (Digital Medusa) presented the paper “Governing Telegram through Apple in the US and China.” It observed that Apple’s app store could be used by both governments to pressure the chat app Telegram to conform to their demands. Recording. Slides.
Drs. Jinhe Liu and Yang Le (Tsinghua U) wrote “A comparative study of content governance mechanism between China and the U.S.” contrasting “party-state led paternalism” and “market society-based individualism.” Noting that the Chinese model was national focused and could not easily be exported, the paper characterized Douyin/Tiktok as “one company two systems,” noting that it had to create two segregated services to enter foreign markets. Recording.
A Roundtable discussion of content governance followed, with participation from Rebecca MacKinnon (author), Peng Guibin (E China U of Political Science & Law), and Han Rongbin (U of Georgia), and moderated by Drs Mueller and Chin. One discussion point was the use of content controls by democracies and how that is used to justify Chinese controls in the domestic context. One major difference cited was the relative autonomy of private companies in the U.S., which are able to push back against government demands and rely on an independent legal system to back them up. MacKinnon claimed that Chinese platforms can perform well on privacy and security protections but are “powerless” to push back against abusive actions by their state. Although the scope for what Westerners would consider democratic discourse is narrower, according to Prof Han there is some room for popular political contention in China. There is some public accountability but it does not take the form of elections. Recording.
In her paper “Rethinking the legal regulation of internet platform monopoly in China,” Professor He Qing (Beijing U of Posts and Telecommunications) gave a very thorough overview of antimonopoly law and policy in China. She covered legislation, three key cases, and the recent penalty decision against Alibaba. She then assessed whether traditional leverage and essential facilities doctrines are applicable to platforms. Recording. Slides.
Dr. Sarah Oh (Technology Policy Institute) surveyed current platform antitrust litigation in the US in the paper “American antitrust criteria and their application to the major platforms.” She catalogued the many allegedly anticompetitive practices of which the platforms are accused and analyzed what it would take to prove them, noting that in the American system these accusations have to be proven in court. Recording. Slides.
Masters student Hu Xiaoyan and Professor Danielle Stockman (Hertie School) contrasted “Alibaba vs Amazon: Comparative analysis of platform power and regulatory implications.” They used a definition of platform power drawn from law professor Julie Cohen and noted that Alibaba has stronger control over e-commerce data flow and blurs the line between private business and public agent. Recording. Slides.
Dr. Lianrui Jia (U Toronto) and Professor Dwayne Winseck (Carleton U) compared “Financialization of Chinese and US platform companies.” The paper noted that the ownership of the Chinese BAT platforms were international financial and institutional investors and many of the investors were also holding shares of US platforms. Recording. Slides.
PhD student Ning Li (Shanghai Jiao Tong U) “Strategic choices for China and the US to deal with the growth of digital platforms.” The paper argued that internet platforms have gone through stages of wild growth, self-disciplined growth and now orderly growth as governments have moved from encouragement and passive supervision to stricter and more active regulation. Recording. Slides.
The Roundtable on Antimonopoly featured Paul Triolo (Eurasia consulting group), Fan Xindong (ChinaLabs), Jet Deng (Denton’s China), and Neil Chilson (former FTC Chief Technologist). Among the many topics discussed was whether recent antitrust efforts in the US and China were motivated by political as opposed to economic criteria, how well antitrust concepts apply to platforms, and the debate in the US between promoters of new legislation vs those who favor application of existing law based on the consumer welfare standard. Fang accused many Chinese academics of being “bought” by the tech companies. Recording.
Privacy and Cybersecurity
Researcher Hunter Dorwart (George Washington U Law) contributed the paper “Platform regulation from the bottom up” comparing data protection litigation in the U.S. and China. He noted that data protection litigation is increasing in both countries. The comparison revealed that in the U.S., court decisions play a more active role in shaping outcomes whereas in China the central administrative bureaucracy makes the primary decisions. Recording. Slides.
Research Fellow Lu Chuanying (Shanghai Institute of International Studies), “The Political impact of internet governance on China-U.S. geopolitical gaming.” A short comment arguing that platforms are implicated in digital geopolitical competition. Lu observed that the U.S. and China face a dilemma: they must strengthen control of platforms while promoting their development. Recording.
Professor Wang Sixin (Communication U), “China’s network real name system.” A descriptive analysis of China’s network real name system and its tension with privacy and security concerns. Recording.
Masters student Li Shimeng, (Communication U of China) “User privacy settings on platforms.” An empirical paper analyzing 8 popular apps (5 Chinese ones and 3 American ones) and contrasting how much control they give the user over privacy. Recording. Slides.
Professor Rogier Creemers (Leiden U), made a wide-ranging set of comments as discussant of the four papers. Among them, he argued that regime type does not explain everything about the differences between US and China platform governance, often states just behave like states. He noted the worldwide trend toward a more nuanced and realistic sense of the costs and harms of platforms as well as their benefits. Comparing the global platforms to the British and Dutch East India companies, he argued that the emergence of private power will lead to actions by states to reassert their power. Recording.
Researchers Ying Huang and Roujing Wu (U. Bonn Center for Global Studies), “Sovereign digital currencies and US-China techno-competition” proposed a typology of digital currencies and used it to contrast US and Chinese regulatory approaches. The paper addressed the question: how do the digital currencies and their different regulatory approaches affect US-China techno-competition? Recording. Slides.
Researcher Colin Kiernan (IGP) and Dr. Hong Shen (Carnegie Mellon U) “Comparing US digital payment systems to China’s Alipay and WeChat duopoly.” They developed a point by point comparison of China’s payment duopoly and its very different US counterparts, addressing the tradeoffs between ubiquity and privacy, the mobile payment divide, policy implications, and corporate monopsony. Recording. Slides.
Professor Xu Chen, Shubing Wu and Qi Yin (Xiamen U), “A comparative analysis of WeChat Pay and Facebook Pay.” The paper relies on network analysis of annual report texts of Facebook and TenCent as a method Concludes that WeChatpay complements Chinese banking infrastructure whereas FB Pay conflicted with a mature banking system. Recording.
Professor Rolf Weber (U Zurich), reviewed the papers and led an interesting discussion of some of the issues raised, including the status of Facebook’s money as a competitor to a digital RMB, whether digital currencies can avoid a race to bottom, the role of anonymity/privacy in digital payments, and whether the Alipay-WeChat duopoly in China will be replaced by a monopoly digital RMB. Recording.