Ooh-la-la, the French Get (Inter)Net Neutrality Right: It’s All About the Platform Monopolies–Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter etc.

Posted on August 27, 2014


Amidst all the storm and thunder surrounding the ever-elusive Net Neutrality (NN) (the FCC call for comments on NN elicited some 1.1 million interventions), the actual point of the exercise at least from the perspective of those looking for an Internet supportive of an open, free, just and democratic Internet seems to have gotten rather lost. Whether “Net Neutrality” is or is not possible from a technical perspective — pragmatists argue yes, purists argue no; whether NN is or is not a fundamental necessity for innovation and economic progress; or whether NN is something that should even be addressed at all given that it represents for some the creeping hand of control over the Internet that so many find repugnant–all these issues and arguments are still raging in the OpEds and online forums from Silicon Valley to New York to Tokyo and beyond.

Meanwhile the rather more fundamental issues of monopoly control of, in and through the Internet–content, services, even concepts and affect seems to have fallen off the agenda. The use of Internet monopoly control to further skew the possibility for competition and market innovation; how that monopoly control gives some help in avoiding taxation; how it has resulted in the flowing of revenues from Internet activities into the coffers of a very few and overwhelmingly US based corporations; is over-looked, avoided, perhaps deliberately obscured to be lost in plain-sight while the NN hounds go after ever more obscure technical NN rabbits.

So it is refreshing to find a clear-sighted, clear-headed report–“Platform Neutrality: Building an Open and Sustainable Digital Environment” on what NN looks like when seen from outside of the tech pundit echo chamber. In fact according to this report, what NN really looks like isn’t NN at all.

Rather what the Centre Nationale de Numerique (CNNum) (French Digital Council), a French Internet and things digital think tank funded by and with some policy advisory role for the French Government have identified is the rather more pressing issue of what they term “Platform Neutrality”, an interesting adaptation of a term usually used in software circles to point to (or away from) lock-in to one or another software “platform” (think Microsoft or SAP). The use of the terminology in fact is similar in that in the CNNum’s use it refers to the Internet (and now mobile) based platforms — Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — where similar issues of cross-platform interoperability, data portability, lock-in/lock-out for users, suppliers, competitors are quite parallel.

The current report builds on an earlier report and “Opinion” on Network Neutrality” which significantly focused more on Network outputs (from the end user perspective) than on Network inputs i.e. the technical details of how bits flow through digital networks and where the conventional notion of Net Neutrality is significantly extended as follows:
Net neutrality enforcement for platforms must do more than just protect consumers’ well-being. It must also protect the well-being of citizens by ensuring that the Internet’s role as a catalyst for innovation, creation, expression and exchange is not undermined by development strategies that close it off.

thus linking notions of Net Neutrality with notions of the rights of citizens including for free expression and free exchange.

This new report, beginning from the notion of what they call “service platforms”, directly linked to the user-facing output notions from their Net Neutrality document goes on to discuss Platform Neutrality in the following terms
…service platforms have followed a different development path (from (communication) network platforms) foregoing completely the national monopoly stage: the low level of initial investment required has made it possible to quickly build up dominant platforms on user functions that fully harness the network effect. As long as they continue to go unchallenged by either the political community or by other industry players, their powerful position will be maintained.

This is the crux of their highly interesting and innovatively political economic analysis–recognizing that these Internet “platforms” have been “born digital and global” (and thus from their inception outside of the range or even visibility of national regulation or regulators); that they are a new type of business/innovation model– low capitalization, multiple functionalities, and rapid deployment; and perhaps most important that unless they are “challenged” (regulated, effectively competed with) their “powerful (monopoly) position” will be dominant for the foreseeable future able to use their first mover advantage, wealth and expanding functionality to exclude dominate all competitors.

The report then goes on to identify the unique characteristics (and dangers) of these “platforms” in a way which parallels but substantially extends the earlier discussions (and policy initiatives concerning “technology neutrality“). The report talks about the role of the platform as a technical “ecology” or eco-system and the opportunities for abuse built into this form through the variety of technology, economic and behavioural lock-ins for competitors, collaborators and general users. These lock-ins in fact, only become greater as the ecology advances and becomes more functionally elaborate and technologically sophisticated. It equally benefits from knock-on and synergistic network effects as its user base grows as a result of its monopoly position in its eco-space.

This analysis perhaps for the first time in a policy context recognizes the uniqueness of the Internet-based techno-business models which have been unleashed. They further describe some of the means by which these “platforms” have been built first within the Internet space by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon and now with even more strength within the mobile space by companies such as Apple, Twitter and Google.

The report then goes on to extend its analysis by drawing the necessary links between these platform-based monopolies and those issues which directly impact users such as privacy and user control of personal data and makes the link from this directly into matters of public policy in a way which no other jurisdiction has yet had the courage and foresight to do:
To this end, platform neutrality can be viewed from two angles: the traditional defensive angle designed to protect liberties, including freedom of expression, free trade, free access to data and content and free competition; or the offensive angle aimed at developing user power in the long term, promoting economic and social progress, creating the right conditions for a multitude of user types and encouraging innovation. This neutrality approach contributes to sovereignty in the broadest sense, i.e. the ability to act and make decisions. The CNNum recommends that France and the European Union should maintain and bolster their ability in these areas when taking part in international negotiations on neutrality.

The report concludes with four general high level recommendations and a number of more specific recommendations nested within these.
1. Bolster the effectiveness of law in relation to digital platforms — in this way challenging law makers to update both their thinking and their legislation in response to these very significant changes in the overall policy landscape. In doing this they make it very clear that they consider these areas subject to national (and regional) policy considerations in direct opposition to the position of those advocating “Internet Freedom” i.e. an Internet which is beyond or outside of the realm of public policy. Within this there is the suggestion of the creation of independent assessment “auditing” agencies whose task it would be to assess neutrality issues and whose operations would build on crowd sourcing information gathering and reputation management methodologies.

2. Ensure data system effectiveness.– Interestingly, where issues of “system effectiveness” within the more traditional context of Internet Governance would be defined from the perspective either of “technical effectiveness” or “corporate functional effectiveness” in this report the meaning is very much end-user focused. How effectively does the system operate so as to maximize individual and particularly collective benefits to end users? Thus the notion of “fairness” (from the end user perspective) is central to this part of the discussion — is the manner and outcome of data use within platform-defined systems providing “fair” use and value to the end user and how can the playing field be leveled (if indeed it can) for individual user (and data provider) in managing and controlling their own data including through “transferability” and “interoperability” in relation to super rich and super powerful platform monopolies.

The report here goes into quite uncharted waters opening up a discussion of the “prescriptive” (normative) role of digital platforms and presenting a series of innovative responses to this set of observations including the need for transparency of algorithms, identification of operational practices and guidelines (they use the term “best practices”) employed within the various platforms, and suggested guidelines to ensure appropriate levels of end user, competitor and collaborator neutrality/fairness of operations.

Going even further the report identifies issues of “power” and “power imbalances” as being at the core of the relationships between the various digital platforms and those within their broader digital eco-system. The report further points out how more traditional understandings (and the associated policy responses) of such power imbalances needs to be updated in the light of the new technology functionalities and business models/strategies in the digital sphere.

3. Invest significantly in skills and knowledge to bolster competitiveness Following on from the earlier assertion of attempting to “bolster” rather than “control” the report outlines a series of research and other measures that should be undertaken to enhance the broad and in particular political understanding of the developments that are taking place in the digital sphere as a background to initiating efforts to respond to these.

4. Set the right conditions to allow alternatives to emerge  Again turning away from the dominant laissez faire Internet development model the report goes on to suggest an economic strategy way forward given that the digital world is currently dominated by a small number of platform-based monopolies based in the US and competing directly (and again based on the analysis) “unfairly” with possible competitors in France and Europe.
France and the EU must develop a strategy that will protect their social and individual values, and that will act as a springboard for the development of digital economic actors. Sovereignty–understood here as the ability to choose a development model with respect to the digital world –means giving oneself the resources to make such a choice.

It is notable that the report identifies “neutral, open platforms” and “open data” as essential for this task.

How innovative the report actually is can be seen from a highly critical blogpost from a well-known US based tech industry commentator which more or less completely misses the point. This commentary situates the discussion solely within the context of the ultimately sterile and dysfunctional US regulatory distinction between (regulated) “telecommunications services” and (non-regulated) “information services”.

It is certainly in the interests of the “platform monopolists” in the US–the Google’s, Facebook’s, Amazon’s, Twitter’s et al to have the “Neutrality” discussion focus solely on “carriage” i.e. “Network” issues (important as they are) while ignoring or by-passing the even more significant issues of lack of “Platform” Neutrality which has come to dominate significant elements of the Internet (in fact in many instances to begin the process of walling these areas off from the open Internet).

The French Digital Council should be highly commended for identifying and analyzing these issues, beginning a process of placing these issues firmly in their political economic context and ultimately for bringing them to the attention of the French Government, the EU and one hopes the world.