The digital economy promised a radical dissolution of old barriers to entry in the market, but has created stark new ones. The absence of true data portability has served to maintain monopolies and harm workers.
I recently decided to get off Spotify. After 8 years on-and-off using the music streaming platform, having my account hacked and a buggy update finally convinced me to look elsewhere. Looking around, there’s a lot of choice between services with very similar offerings.
While the main players in the industry, Spotify and Apple Music, compete fiercely for exclusives and pre-releases of new music and back-catalogues, the truth is that the major platforms have more-or-less all the music you could want. The difference comes in the service they provide: the interface, the pricing, and increasingly the ease of discovering new music.
Given the similarity of these different platforms, it’s astonishingly difficult to switch between them – not because of pricing, or differences in the user experience – but because it’s so difficult to transport the archive of music we accrue from one platform to another. There is no simple way of moving playlists or libraries across streaming services, other than through third-party apps, most of which are suspiciously free, and are most likely mining your personal data. Decades of digital record collecting can be made obsolete in a blip – as when, earlier this year, Apple announced plans to close down iTunes – bad news for anyone who believed the early-noughties hype and bought-up their music library on mp3.
The inability to transfer such simple data is straightforwardly bad for competition. Even smaller players in the market, such as Tidal and Deezer, may be unwilling to push for data portability if it means new entrants lower down in the food chain.
Unlike in traditional monopolies, the real loser in this situation is not the customer, but the producer, with musicians making a miniscule fraction of a penny on each play. Streaming platforms still struggle to break even, with Spotify only managing to turn a profit in early 2018, 13 years after it was launched. High barriers to entry for competitors combined with rock-bottom pricing means that a musician taking their wares elsewhere – as Taylor Swift did in 2014 – will not hit subscriber numbers too hard.
The data-moving situation for workers
Music streaming is one thing, but what if the ability to easily transfer your data, data portability, was essential for your livelihood?
This is a very real problem faced by gig economy workers in the UK. Currently Uber and Deliveroo drivers are heavily reliant on the reviews they receive from customers. Uber drivers can be removed from the service if their overall score falls below 4.6 out of 5, a situation made tougher by how skewed these reviews can be – customers will review a delivery driver badly if there’s a problem with the food which originates in the restaurant, or blame their ride-share driver if the route they take has traffic.
To take another example, TaskRabbit is a gig economy platform which links local tradespeople with people who need stuff done. Prior to the internet, workers and companies in areas such as construction would build their reputations through references, or word-of-mouth recommendations. What was once an informal cache of information has now been formalised: worker data which might take years to build up can be jettisoned in seconds.
In the same way that I might want to retain my data when I switch streaming services, gig economy workers who have spent years accruing data through positive reviews ought to be able to take that data with them. Without doing so, workers must start from scratch when changing services, which can result in a massive dip in earnings. By denying workers data portability, gig economy platforms can effectively lock-in their workers, a situation which exacerbates the high levels of economic insecurity already faced by those in the gig economy.
This happens despite legal guarantees. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) has a provision for data portability, although the wording is unspecific and has not been enforced forcefully in the gig economy. Platforms can further claim that their reviews are not portable, as they are based on different criteria to one-another.
What is to be done?
In the US, leading technology companies launched the Data Transfer Project last year, with the aim of making it easier for consumers to move between online services. While the website claims the project ‘facilitates competition’ and ‘empowers individuals’, it is more likely a response to growing calls to break-up the tech monopolies, with Facebook and Google currently facing antitrust investigations in Texas and New York. Inspired by GDPR, legislators in Singapore, India, Australia and Hong Kong are exploring measures to improve data portability.
Banking and telecoms have already provided blueprints for how to do this successfully. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, has now made it possible to switch mobile network with one text, and the consumer banking sector has developed a service which makes it easier for customers to switch current accounts. A similar approach in the world of tech would reduce monopoly power, give gig economy workers greater freedom, and provide better value to the people who use their services.
In the meantime, I haven’t quit Spotify. It’s too much faff.
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