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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by transcript Verlag November 2, 2019

Platform Humanism and Internal Opacity

The Limits of Online Service Providers’ Transparency Discourse

  • Artur de Matos Alves
From the journal Digital Culture & Society


This article explores the discourse on transparency put forward by online service providers (OSP). It provides critical analysis of texts accompanying transparency-related materials detailing disclosure and usage of user data - specifically transparency reports (TR). The aim is to explore some of the ideological dimensions of “transparency” discourses. Transparency reports divulge information on governmental and judicial requests for user data or service interdiction. Discourses surrounding TR focus on legal issues and mandatory disclosure of information, while excluding information about internal data usage and monetization of user data. This paper argues that OSPs potentially share some of the users’ concerns and policy priorities concerning government requests for information, judicial overreach, and generalized surveillance. However, this ostensive alignment downplays legitimate public concerns about the OSPs’ business models (commercial surveillance and monetization of user data and content), as well as other divergences between the OSPs’ public discourse and business practices. This study analyses the transparency hubs and related discourse of three online service providers: Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. By deploying a multimodal critical discourse analysis approach, it focuses on terminology choices, language, and other rhetorical strategies deployed to mobilize ideologically charged concepts of responsibility, transparency, ethics, and the common good. Considering the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and the lack of transparency of OSP data sharing, manipulation and usage, the debate on transparency, online politics, and data security is both topical and in need of urgent clarification. This paper contributes to that discussion by exploring the ways in which platform politics and ideology contribute to shape dominant notions of transparency, social responsibility, and ethics in the online sphere.

Published Online: 2019-11-02
Published in Print: 2018-12-01

© 2019 by transcript Verlag

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