Meet Your New Overlords: How Digital Platforms Develop and Sustain Technofeudalism
Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts, Vol. 43(4), 2020 https://journals.library.columbia.edu/index.php/lawandarts/article/view/6127
26 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2019 Last revised: 1 Jun 2020
Date Written: October 22, 2019
Most digital natives are familiar with YouTube’s anti-piracy algorithm, Content ID. Yet few are familiar with the long-term socio-political consequences of its use. This paper argues that the unlimited power of platforms to regulate access to user-generated content through algorithms like Content ID leads to three perverse outcomes. First, the removal of lawful content falsely flagged as “infringing” results in the suppression of legitimate speech, and a reduction in the diversity of online discourse. Secondly, the erosion of lawful exceptions and limitations to copyright protection through algorithmic adjudication alters the fundamental social contract established by Congress between copyright owners and users; displaces decades of carefully developed fair use jurisprudence; and transfers adjudicatory power from courts to corporations. Thirdly, the monetization of user-generated content, not by users, but by copyright owners (following the flagging of content as “infringing”) is symptomatic of the systemic exploitation of users that is occurring on digital platforms, also known as “technofeudalism”. This paper situates the specific inadequacies of Content ID within the broader socio-political context of technochauvinism, data colonialism, and the neoliberal privatization of governance in order to understand why users keep returning to YouTube even after their content has been removed and their labor monetized by third parties. It examines the increasing pressure placed on platforms to perform quasi-judicial functions (for example, adjudicating the right to be forgotten under the GDPR, and property and expressive rights under the new EU copyright directive) and the algorithms they develop in order to execute their new roles. It concludes by arguing that the convergence of adjudicatory and enforcement power within the hands of a few corporate algorithms demands a fundamental reconceptualization of the user-platform relationship.
Keywords: digital labor, user-generated content, intermediary liability, copyright infringement, right to be forgotten, free speech, fair use, quasi-judicial, copyright enforcement, safe harbors, platform liability, algorithmic governance
JEL Classification: K11
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation