Organisatie - 26 maart 2020

‘Monopolies are OK, but make them democratic’

Tessa Louwerens

A lot of digital platforms get better the bigger they get, and therefore automatically drift towards becoming monopolies, says Jeroen Koendjbiharie. That is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, it benefits users. But they should then have more say in things. So his proposition is: Many services like Google, Facebook and Amazon could be considered natural monopolies, and should therefore be regulated by a democratic institution.

PhD candidates are expected to submit a handful of propositions with their thesis. In this feature, they explain their most thought-provoking proposition. This time, it’s Jeroen Koendjbiharie, who got his PhD on 4 March for his study on the use of thermophilic bacteria instead of fossil fuels to produce chemicals.

‘A monopolist is often seen as undesirable because market forces are no longer in play. Some people want such big companies broken down into smaller units. But I think monopolists are useful in some ways because of the services they offer.

People join Facebook because so many other people are on it. But a company has to make a profit, so it has many other incentives apart from social ones to create a network of that kind. Users have no influence on how the organization is run. I don’t think we should oppose them; we should realize we benefit when a company has this kind of monopoly. But it is good to look for ways of making sure platforms are democratically regulated. For example, by letting a public non-profit organization take the lead.

Government doesn’t want to depend on commercial platforms for reaching broad audience

The digital world is an important part of our daily life, so it is a logical step to create a public online domain that is safe and accessible for everyone. An example is the “PublicSpaces” launched in 2018 by the Dutch public broadcasting company VPRO in collaboration with others, to provide an alternative to commercial apps. That kind of public network gives users a say. And it is important if a government doesn’t want to be dependent on commercial platforms for reaching a broad audience. If it does well, this kind of public platform will end up being a monopolist too, but at least there is then some kind of accountability.’