THE bigger, the better. For the most part, internet companies are judged by the number of users they have. Sign up enough people, the thinking goes, and revenues and profits will follow.
A large customer base can be useful in other ways, too. As internet companies have muscled in on existing business models, from taxi services to hotels, they have rubbed up against existing regulations. And so they have started lobbying to change them, just like their corporate brethren.
But conventional advocacy is not enough for such disruptive types. Not content to rely on well-placed lobbyists with the ears of politicians, they are recruiting users to promote their cause.
Facebook did this when India’s telecoms regulator sought public consultation on services that offer limited access to internet sites via phones, a model catching on in the developing world (see ““). One such service is Free Basics, owned by Facebook. Its reaction to the consultation was to invite millions of its users to send boilerplate emails of support, deluging the unamused regulator.
Others are also marshalling users to their cause. Uber, for example, last year defeated a proposed cap on the number of its vehicles in New York City. One of its tactics was to roll out a new mode on its app named “De Blasio” – after the city mayor championing the cap. The mode made all of Uber’s cars disappear from the map and directed users to a petition. And home-stay giant Airbnb is organising its US users into “guilds” to fight proposed regulations on short-term rentals around the country.
Internet services have spent vast sums learning how to direct their users’ activity. That makes for a powerful political force – which can be exercised with little transparency. As The Times of India reported, many Facebook users claimed they were enlisted in its campaign unwittingly. It’s all very well for internet firms to throw their audiences’ weight around, but they should strive to capture nuance as well as numbers. After all, might doesn’t make right.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Customer or lobbyist?”
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