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Monopolies, data, etc: Life in the mobile apps era could prove a mixed bag

By Cheng Yu | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-01 09:58

My generation-people born after 1990-are accustomed to "all-in-platform" life, where we use mobile apps of different platforms to do almost everything in life.[Photo/IC]

My generation-people born after 1990-are accustomed to "all-in-platform" life, where we use mobile apps of different platforms to do almost everything in life.

For instance, I ordered a cup of coffee on Monday using an online delivery app. Then, I hailed a taxi by tapping on the app of a ride-booking service. Next, I bought some necessities on shopping platform Taobao. That done, I moved on to various other online destinations to get my daily fix of music, reading, social networking and so forth.

Platforms now play an increasingly important role in almost all aspects of day-to-day life, not just in economic and political processes. Consumption and social interaction are inextricably linked to platforms now.

But, I began to get confused recently. I thought I was being treated differently. My friend and I called a taxi at the same time on a ride-hailing platform and found that for the same destination, the prices were different.

The price indicated on my phone was higher. One of the potential reasons could have been that I regularly use the ride-hailing platform and have a higher ranking while my friend doesn't use it that often. So, the ride-hailing platform offers discounts to newbies like her, to attract and retain such customers.

So, prices tend to be low, even irresistible, for newbies initially. That's understandable in a fiercely competitive market. Even more so when the field is a virtual monopoly or duopoly.

Here's the irony: loyal customers help a market entity to grow into a dominant player. But the selfsame patrons are discriminated against later on by such companies.

So, China's latest efforts in regulating monopolistic or improper market behavior are of great significance in protecting consumers' legitimate rights.

"The essence of platform-based monopoly is that a large number of users are gathered on only a select few platform companies, leading to uneven data gathering on different platforms. But in China, some platforms leverage their own data and traffic to expand capital in a disorderly way," said Wang Yong, deputy director of the Institute of Economics at Tsinghua University.

According to a report by WeChat, as of June this year, the combined monthly active accounts of WeChat reached 1.25 billion globally. Byte-Dance data also showed that Douyin, the Chinese version of short video-sharing app TikTok, had 600 million daily active users as of August.

"Data can give full play to their advantage and a greater synergistic value only when they are highly complementary, open and shared," Wang said.

Data monopoly also triggered another inconvenience for consumers-platforms block links to each other. For instance, link to WeChat Pay of Tencent is not available on Alibaba's Taobao while there is no Alipay link on JD app's payment options.

Last year, Beijing Sankuai Online Technology Co and Beijing Sankuai Information Technology Co, the registered company names of Meituan, were charged with preventing customers from using Alipay as a payment option on Meituan apps and platforms.

Several web users accused Meituan of restricting payment options on its platforms and prioritizing its own payment services, along with WeChat Pay and Apple Pay options.

In July, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched a six-month special rectification for the internet industry, asking errant platform operators to stop blocking each other's links.

The draft amendment to the Anti-monopoly Law also proposed that platform operators shall not exclude or restrict competition by using data, algorithms, technologies, capital advantages or platform rules.

To ensure a market is fair, it is important to build a sound online traffic settlement system and allow market mechanisms to play a key role in the configuration of the data and traffic markets, said Wang from Tsinghua University.

"More efforts should also be made to strike a good balance between personal information protection and interconnectivity between platforms. Companies are being encouraged to further develop data encryption technology so that the data are available but not visible."

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