Internet concentration: new challenges for freedom of expression in Latin America

Olívia Bandeira* and Jonas Valente **


In Brazil, the online scenario is marked by the hegemony of the large international platforms and by the concentration of audiences on websites belonging to traditional media groups, with limited spaces for new voices.

Media concentration is an historical problem in Latin America. In many countries, large media conglomerates have for decades concentrated much of the audience in segments such as the printed media, TV and radio. In recent years, cross-ownership of the media has grown, with large conglomerates increasingly dominating other markets, such as digital media, pay-TV, cinema and even telecommunications, as shown in the Media Property Monitoring survey on the initiative of Reporters Without Borders, in five countries of the continent (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Peru).

The Internet, which emerged as an alternative promise to this concentration, with its original architecture conducive to the plurality of information circulation, was not able to significantly change this scenario. On the contrary, the problem of concentration remains in the digital environment, now with a new layer, with large platforms controlling much of the market, the attention of users and the flow of information circulating online.

In the face of technological convergence and the power of information in the continent’s political processes, we believe that it is increasingly important to discuss traditional forms of concentration in parallel with concentration on the internet, as they reinforce each other. In Brazil, for example, the online scenario is marked by the hegemony of the large international platforms and by the concentration of audiences on websites belonging to traditional media groups, with limtied spaces for new voices, as highlighted by the «Concentration and Diversity on the Internet: a study of applications and content layers» research project, undertaken by Intervozes.

The research aimed to identify the degree of concentration and diversity based on the application and content layer accessed by Brazilian users, based on four relevant criteria in the circulation of online debates and messages: the most accessed sites, the most downloaded applications, the Facebook pages with the most followers and the most popular channels on YouTube. So let’s look at the results of the first two criteria.

Based on data from December 2017, the study showed that the sites that operate with the most popular content production and distribution in Brazil are content circulation platforms such as YouTube (30%); of social networks (17%) such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Twitter; multi-services (8%) such as Yahoo.com; and email (8%) such as Gmail. Multinational platforms dominate the ranking of the administrators of these sites: Google and Facebook each have three sites in the list of most accessed, and Microsoft has two.

Internet platforms also dominate application markets: they represent 63% of apps downloaded from the Play Store and 75% of Apple Store apps, and top the search list of Conectaí (Kantar IBOPE). The most popular are digital social networks (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat). The second category is paid streaming, including both video and audio apps.

The analysis of this situation gave rise to what the research termed as «digital monopolies», a concept that seeks to describe the performance characteristics of large digital conglomerates. These include: (1) Strong dominance of a niche market; (2) Large numbers of users, who pay or don’t pay for services; (3) Operations on a global scale; (4) Expansion to segments other than the original; (5) Intensive activities in the use of personal data that has been collected; (6) Control of an ecosystem of agents who develop services and goods mediated by their platforms and activities; (7) Strategies of acquisition or controlling of potential competitors.

Not only do digital monopolies concentrate a lot of users’ attention, they also have an architecture that helps them focus on agents that are easier to circulate or who use click-on strategies to attract audiences. As the research shows, in addition to major international content platforms and companies, the Brazilian sites with the largest audience belong to the major Brazilian media conglomerates: Globo.com of the Globo Group, and UOL of the Folha Group. Moreover, only those search sites that use headlines and sensationalist texts to generate clicks and ads appeared in the search.

The aforementioned Monitoring of Media Ownership indicates that this scenario is common in Latin America. Analyzing the online news platforms with the greatest audience access, verified that in other countries on the continent, the most accessed websites also belong to the large media groups.

In Peru, among the ten most accessed news sites (ComScore, 2015), seven belong to the El Comercio Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate, which owns 16 of the top 40 media platforms (TV, radio, printed media and online), including print newspapers accounting for 81% of circulation and 78% of advertising in the segment studied.

Furthermore, in Colombia, the most visited news sites belong to the most widely read print publications, such as El Tiempo, El Espectador and RCN. And as in Brazil, the informational sites of the large groups only forfeit access to the large digital platforms, such as Facebook and Google, the two most visited sites in the country, (Alexa).

In Colombia, in the list of the 11 most accessed news sites, three appear that are considered independent (not tied to large media groups). But this does not change the scenario of concentration. A similar situation can be observed in Argentina and Mexico, where large platforms and sites of traditional media groups prevail among the most accessed, but where some independent online platforms also have a relevant user base.

The data from the two surveys show the contradictory nature of the internet: while there are more voices in the area of production – producing through websites, blogs and profiles in social networks – concentration is increasing in the sphere of circulation, with large platforms establishing the rules and standards for the circulation of information.

The power of these agents comes from their growing position in the global market and also from the developmental characteristics of the Internet itself, with an increasingly dominant platform format. In this format, the greater the number of users, the more attractive the platform becomes, favoring concentration and making it difficult for new agents to enter who could represent competition. The domination of these agents also benefits from the business model based on the collection and processing of personal data: the larger the platform, the more data it controls, and the greater its advantage in the mapping of demands and the supply of goods and services.

This scenario represents a series of challenges to freedom of expression – from the difficulty of circulating a diversity of voices to the growth of disinformation and hate speech, through surveillance and the use of personal data by governments and companies -, all of which requires new forms of regulation.

* Olívia Bandeira – journalist, Ph.D. in Anthropology and member of the board of directors of Intervozes.

** Jonas Valente – journalist, Ph.D. in Sociology and member of the board of directors of Intervozes.

... (en este espacio hay varias líneas de código de programación personalizado)