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Principled governance of online platforms to safeguard social and labour rights

Written by Mihalis Kritikos,

‘Online platforms play an increasingly central role in our lives, and a clear and enforceable set of principles is needed to safeguard the benefits society draws from them.’ That was one of the main statements made in a STOA workshop that took place (online) on 30 March 2021. Coinciding with the publication of a new STOA study assessing the effects of online platforms on the economy and society, as well as of the recent Commission proposals for a Digital Markets Act and a Digital Services Act, the event focused on the disruptive effects of the digital revolution, examined the challenges associated with the growing datafication and platformisation of our societies, and discussed the way forward for policy.

Online platforms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook play an increasingly central role in the economy and society and are recasting the relationships between customers, advertisers, workers and employers. Beyond connecting economic actors, boosting innovation and developing new business models, online platforms also have an impact on labour markets and on the employment relationship, which raises issues relating to fairness, transparency and market distortions. Platform workers are often found in precarious positions, and digital surveillance and manipulation is pervasive. Given that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has accelerated our dependency on online platforms, the event proved to be a timely occasion to discuss how Europe could govern online platforms in a principled way.

Chair of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece) opened the event by highlighting that, despite the global recession caused by the Covid‑19 pandemic, all major online platforms have not only been resilient, but actually are leading beneficiaries of the widespread moves towards remote work, social distancing, and online shopping. In his opening speech about the social implications of online platform work, Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, expressed his concerns regarding the precarious position of platform workers in terms of their access to social security and the effects of algorithmic management and surveillance upon their social rights, labour conditions, safety and privacy. He noted that the EU is already preparing a legislative initiative to expand labour and other social rights to platform workers, to grant them the right to come together and unionise and to foster a human-centric way of regulating workplace algorithmic decision-making systems. Commissioner Schmit stated that the novelty of new digital sectors and new business models should not be a means to evade standard protections, as platforms may erode human agency in many ways.

Following Commissioner Schmit’s speech, Member of the European Parliament Sylvie Brunet (Renew, France), highlighted the inadequacy of the current legal framework to deal with the social effects of this new economic model and emphasised the EU’s special responsibility to guarantee a minimum set of rights for all platform workers. In her insightful speech, Sylvie Brunet highlighted the need to ensure access to social protection, establish fair working conditions and safeguard collective representation, as well as to address psycho-social risks and offer workers training and skills opportunities. Finally, she argued in favour of establishing a certification scheme for ethical platforms and the increase of women’s representation in the digital sector. Member of the European Parliament Deirdre Clune (EPP, Ireland) then delivered a speech on the challenges associated with online platforms and how the European Parliament might address them. She placed special emphasis on the need to support small and medium enterprises, inspire consumers’ trust in the operation of digital platforms and strengthen national and supranational enforcement authorities. She referred to the Commission’s various initiatives and legislative plans as an opportunity to create a leading model that is human-centric and empowers Europeans as digital citizens.

An inspiring presentation of the STOA study was then provided by its author, Annabelle Gawer, Professor at the University of Surrey and Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. She provided a detailed mapping of the various positive and negative effects of online platforms on the economy and society and laid out an extensive range of policy options on competition and innovation, working conditions and labour market dynamics, and societal risks and environmental sustainability.

Professor Gawer’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion on various aspects of key new technologies with eminent experts: Pierre Régibeau, Chief Competition Economist, Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP), European Commission; Philip Marsden, Professor of Law & Economics, College of Europe; Pinar Ozcan, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford; Ludovic Voet, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation; and Georgios Mavros, Senior Manager Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google. All panellists agreed on the need to shape a clear and predictable framework that could accommodate different types of platform-related activities without hampering innovation and competition and without undermining the European social rights acquis.

In her closing remarks, Eva Kaili noted that this event can also act as a reminder of the fact that Europe has a lot of work to do in developing a solid legal framework that ensures a fair, secure and open online platform environment, and more particularly in protecting European citizens and societies by framing a sustainable ecosystem of trust in the field of online platforms. She emphasised the need for Europe to take the lead in securing the interests of workers, citizens and users alike and for seeking truly systemic solutions that will change the power balance in online environments.

If you missed this STOA workshop, you can access the presentations and watch the recording of the event on the STOA webpage.

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