Public actors without public values: Legitimacy, domination and the regulation of the technology sector

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The scale and asymmetry of commercial technology firms’ power over people through data, combined with the increasing involvement of the private sector in public governance, means that increasingly people do not have the ability to opt out of engaging with technology firms. At the same time, those firms are increasingly intervening on the population level in ways that have implications for social and political life. This creates the potential for power relations of domination, and demands that we decide what constitutes the legitimacy to act on the public. Business ethics and private law are not designed to answer these questions, which are primarily political. If people have lost the right to disengage with commercial technologies, we may need to hold the companies that offer them to the same standards to which we hold the public sector. This paper first defines the problem and demonstrates that it is significant and widespread, and then argues for the development of an overarching normative framework for what constitutes non-domination with regard to digital technologies. Such a framework must involve a nuanced idea of political power and accountability that can respond not only to the legality of corporate behaviour, but to its legitimacy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)897-922
Number of pages26
JournalPhilosophy & Technology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Big data
  • Governance
  • Political legitimacy
  • Public sphere
  • Social media


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