Europe open-eyed to open internet
I read with great interest your Open Letter entitled “Four days to save the open Internet in Europe”. Net Neutrality rules have been adopted in Europe last year. They must now be put in practice, and the public consultation on the guidelines drafted by BEREC (the European telecom regulators body) was an important milestone in this context.
Let me — as Chairman of Arcep — take the opportunity of this letter to turn the attention of eminent personalities like you, at the forefront of the global fight for decentralized systems and freedom of communication, on what I consider to be today’s key debate: the concentration of information and communications in the hands of a very limited number of Internet giants. I fully share your view that the Internet has now become a crucial collaborative space, tremendously important for all our society and economy, and I believe we must now consider it as a common good. In this respect, ISPs are not the only privately-controlled bottlenecks in the sector anymore. Now that net neutrality rules are on track, should we not broaden the debate on open Internet to also consider how to prevent a few Internet giants from taking advantage of their current position to potentially dictate their own rules to the World Wide Web?
Your letter points out key areas discussed in BEREC’s guidelines. BEREC is in the process of evaluating the contributions received and I will not preempt the outcome of the ongoing process. I will therefore limit my answer to a simple invitation: please, look at Europe with fresh eyes, not solely from an American standpoint.
First of all, the Net Neutrality principle is now anchored in EU law by the equivalent of a “Net Neutrality Act”. The rules that are being laid down are legally and politically very strong, and it is therefore much less likely that they would be unraveled — whether by a new legislation, a court ruling, or a change of chairman in the regulating agencies.
Moreover, the European framework doesn’t solely rely on the Net Neutrality legislation. In the last two decades, thanks to a combination of political and administrative vision from European institutions and industrial courage from determined entrepreneurs, Europe has indeed achieved something precious in its telecom markets: competition!
European consumers have a great power: they can vote with their feet! This enables customers to immediately punish any operator performing poorly. We have experienced this kind of situation in Europe, where operators have tried to engage in battle with Tech giants and lost because of the potential deterioration in the quality perceived by users to access these services. Through competition, our communication networks develop to meet high standards in terms of accessibility, universality, performance, neutrality, trustworthiness and fairness.
When I have the opportunity to exchange with American people about US telecom market, I often hear about the market power of a few cable operators — often in local monopoly — considered as a huge threat to network development in the US, both for consumers and for net neutrality. It may be no coincidence that the net neutrality debate surfaced in the US before coming to Europe?
All in all, Europe benefits from a double protection: not only the legislation, but also competition, that provides in itself a first condition for net neutrality. In terms of opening communication networks, I believe Europe does actually pretty well and it would be our honor to invite you to our continent to present to you how it works and what we achieved.
I now come to my main question. Don’t you think that the internet is progressively centralizing around a few large gatekeepers, of which the Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are often considered as the most visible ambassadors? Undeniably, those companies deserve their success, given the extraordinary services they offer. But, taking a step back, the fact that such a significant proportion of web users rely on the same tools for their everyday usage comes along with a significant power given to a handful of stakeholders. I wonder whether such a concentration of economic and informational power has already been reached in the history of mankind.
Your works, along with those of Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics, or more recently Yochai Blenker and its “Wealth of Networks”, sparked a rich conceptual and intellectual corpus. The conclusion I humbly draw is that decentralization, peer systems and self-organization capabilities are key to guarantee freedom of information, communication and innovation. Is it not paradoxical that, with the support of the decentralized nature of the Internet, a handful of giants are now in the position of capturing the vast majority of communications on a planetary scale? This debate is neither about the nationality of the players, the quality of the services they offer nor their capacity to innovate. It is about democracy, and I believe we should explore, with a very open mind and in a constructive approach, the ways and means to ensure that the Internet remains a truly open and innovative space.
This is no easy challenge, and we’ll need to harness all the goodwill we can get to fuel the debate!