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<nettime> Ooh-la-la, the French Get (Inter)Net Neutrality Right: It's Al
michael gurstein on Thu, 28 Aug 2014 21:59:47 +0200 (CEST)

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

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

Michael Gurstein 
 {AT} michaelgurstein

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

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.

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