Shaping the Internet's Future

Internet Society-Chatham House Collaboration: How Is Consolidation Changing the Internet?

For the past couple of years, here, at the Internet Society, we have been thinking about Internet consolidation. After releasing the 2019 Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy, we understood our limitations and the complexity of the issue. To this end, we decided to partner with Chatham House and reach out to the community of researchers and academics, seeking their input to learn more. This resulted in a long process to create a special issue of the Journal of Cyber Policy, including more than 40 proposals for articles, various peer-review cycles and many edits from the authors.

The selection process was tough. We had to weigh in a broad range of ideas and perspectives, which touched virtually all aspects of the Internet economy. And while hard choices had to be made, we are also confident we made the right ones. The level of quality, creativity, and interest that is incorporated in each and every research paper is truly outstanding. For this we are also grateful for the amazing support we have received from our community in spreading the word, for submitting proposals, and to the broad range of experts who have participated in the review of the final articles.

What this process has confirmed, and which we hope to reflect in the diversity of the articles in the journal, is that the topic of Internet consolidation is not a straightforward issue. In fact, it spans across many issues, making it impossible to see it as a single thing. This is consistent with the Internet – it is not a monolith, but a compilation of technologies, services, and actors – all contributing their part to the larger whole.

In this light, Internet consolidation can be seen as a phenomenon that is best described, as Jari Arkko expresses it in his article, as “…the process of the increasing control over Internet infrastructure and services by a small set of organisations.” But to the extent this constitutes a concern will vary depending on where you sit, where you look, and the nature of the service in question. For example, and which you can read more about in the special issue, concentration and consolidation in parts of the infrastructure like Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) have vastly different implications than consolidation in the run-time supply chains of applications.

As the Internet Society’s CEO, Andrew Sullivan, discusses in his guest editorial to the special issue, it seems clear that “while consolidation presents serious legal and social issues, it only sometimes presents an issue for the Internet itself.” And while a few hypotheses emerge as to when that may be the case, it’s also evident that consolidation as a trend requires a much closer look on a case-by-case basis. Recognizing these nuances has never been more important as policymakers and others are grappling to understand how the Internet is evolving. The decisions we make today, or the lack thereof, will inevitably have consequences for the Internet’s success in the future.

We hope that this special issue will illustrate a breadth of perspectives, both in terms of consolidation trends in different parts of the Internet, with regards to possible ways forward, and as a catalyst for an interdisciplinary research agenda.

We urge you to go read the papers, whether you are an academic, policymaker, or just interested in keeping the Internet open for everyone. The Internet Society has secured open access to this special issue. We hope they inspire you to continue asking the difficult questions.

Read the Journal of Cyber Policy Special Issue: Consolidation of the Internet.

Shaping the Internet's Future

APAC Policy Survey 2019: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

The Internet is changing. Consolidation in the Internet economy, the topic of the Global Internet Report 2019, might be the source of ongoing shifts in its underlying infrastructure and the way users engage, among many other things.

Clearly, the growing presence of big Internet platforms can benefit the user by offering seamless Internet experiences, but it could also harm innovation, competition, and the Internet’s broader architecture, says the report, which marks the start of the Internet Society’s efforts to examine this issue.

The Internet in Asia-Pacific is no exception. A few corporations – including Facebook and Tencent in social networking, Google and Baidu in search, and Amazon and Alibaba in online shopping – dominate large parts of the Internet, benefitting people while raising similar questions about what it means for the Internet’s fundamental properties.

This year’s Survey on Policy Issues in Asia-Pacific, released today, helps deepen our understanding of the role that corporations play in shaping Internet use and user experience in the region and how they may impact future innovation on the Internet.

More than 1,300 people from 39 economies in the region took our online survey when we opened it to the public in July.

The results show a big majority of Internet users in APAC are heavy users of the products of companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google), and that almost all respondents depend in some way on their offerings for most of their online activities.

Almost half of the respondents say it will be either difficult or very difficult to find replacements for those products.

The respondents are concerned about security. They ranked it as their top concern when they choose an online service, followed by how easy it is to use and if it is free of charge.

In general, they have more trust in big companies than small ones. Yet, they expect future innovations on the Internet to come from not only big companies, but also new and emerging firms.

The survey shows that digital consolidation involves a complex set of issues. It helps inform us as we continue to delve deep into the topic of consolidation from different perspectives.

Thank you to many of you who took part in the survey. Please continue to share your views with us on our website or social media.

Read the full report and look back at past surveys: 201420152016, 2017, and 2018.

Shaping the Internet's Future

Internet Society Asia-Pacific Policy Survey 2019 Now Open: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

The Internet Society recently embarked on a year-long effort to explore the trends of consolidation in the Internet economy, and I write to sincerely invite you to share your views with us in the Regional Policy Survey 2019, an annual exercise of the Asia-Pacific Bureau of the Internet Society.

Your input is very important to us. It will help us understand the issue from your perspectives and produce a report to be released later this year. Ultimately, your input will help us come up with technical and policy recommendations for policymakers with the aim of preserving the Internet’s properties that give us the critical abilities to connect, speak, innovate, share, choose, and trust.

Please take 5-10 minutes to complete the survey, which covers all Internet users in Asia-Pacific. To show our appreciation, we will be offering 2 tablet computers in a lucky draw, and the winners will be notified by email after the survey closes on July 31.

Read about the previous installments of the survey.

Thank you again for your time and input.

Improving Technical Security Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS)

Making the Internet Better Together at APRICOT 2019

Asia Pacific Regional Internet Conference on Operational Technologies (APRICOT) 2019, said to be the largest technical conference in the region, drew hundreds of the world’s leading Internet engineers from over 50 countries to Daejeon, South Korea last week.

The Internet Society, a long-time partner of the event, contributed to the event by not only sponsoring over a dozen of fellows to travel there, but also made multiple high-profile appearances in various sessions, including the opening keynote speech.

The Internet Society’s President and CEO Andrew Sullivan delivered the keynote Up and Down the Stack Through a Nerd’s Eyes: Making the Internet Better the Internet Way with hundreds of people present, including Tae-Jeong Her, Mayor of Daejeon, and Dr Hee-yoon Choi, President of organiser the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information (KISTI), a government research institute.

Now that so many people depend on the Internet, it is no surprise that businesspeople, policymakers, regulators, and politicians all want a say in the way the Internet evolves. But some of the proposals for the future of the Internet, Sullivan said, betray fundamental misunderstandings of the way the Internet works. The talk urged us all to continue to engage with the big questions that affect the future of the Internet, and to bring to that engagement the technical understanding of how the Internet depends on the community of independent network operators in order to remain healthy and strong.

The Internet Society delegation this year also included Rajnesh Singh, Regional Director of the APAC Bureau; Aftab Siddiqui, Technical Engagement Manager, APAC; Salam Yamout, Regional Director, Middle East; Andrei Robachevsky, Senior Technology Programme Manager; Sally Harvey, Director, Membership and Partnership Development; and me, Outreach Manager, APAC.

In line with the Internet Society’s 2019 Action Plan, our message at APRICOT 2019 was to give voice to the need to improve the Internet’s technical security, specifically routing security. That was why in different sessions we promoted the Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS), a global initiative of the Internet Society that provides operators with steps to mitigate the most common routing threats.

We undertook a variety of roles at the conference and side events, including chairing and speaking at the AP* Meeting, speaking at the APNIC Global Reports, speaking at the APNIC Cooperation SIG, as well as several other speaking and moderation roles. We also had a number of bilateral meetings with other Internet organisations throughout the week.

I had the pleasure to moderate the ISOC@APRICOT session, in which we introduced the community to our work plans and invited them to exchange views on broad Internet issues in the region with us. We were much encouraged by the support of some Internet Society Chapter leaders and members who told us more about their local communities.

In the session, Sullivan introduced the 2019 Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy, which explores the growing influence of a few powerful players in the Internet economy.

The study is the beginning of a conversation about the implications of concentration in the Internet economy. Our analysis shows the questions surrounding these trends are very complex, and hasty interventions could lead to unintended consequences and harm for the Internet and its users. More work must be done to understand this important issue.

“I hope you’ll join us and help identify gaps that we haven’t done or suggest ways to improve the study,” Sullivan concluded the session by introducing our research funding opportunities.

Read the 2019 Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy to understand key features of consolidation, the impact of emerging trends on the Internet, and explore the questions it raises.

Shaping the Internet's Future

The Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

The 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future focused attention on the significant potential of the Internet for innovation and sustainable development, but without denying or shirking the challenges it also introduces. This forward-looking analysis is a powerful advocacy tool for anyone who wants to protect and build the open Internet.

Over the past year, we spent time working with our community on a new report. It takes a closer look at one of those forces and how it may impact the future: Consolidation in the Internet Economy. Understood as growing forces of concentration, vertical and horizontal integration, and fewer opportunities for market entry and competition, this topic includes the impact of consolidating forces on all stakeholders as well as on the Internet’s underlying and evolving technology.

We chose this theme because findings from the 2017 report, and what’s happened since, are showing increasing concerns about a growing concentration of power in the Internet economy. They point to market and technical forces that may be driving consolidation at different “layers” of the Internet, from network developments and hosting services to applications. Among these trends are processes that enable some companies to own our experience at almost every stage.

Such trends of consolidation are not new and can be expected as markets and industries mature. To some, it is an evolution foremost characterized by lower prices and better services. But consolidation also implies a greater influence by a few, raising concerns of a more centralized Internet that could impede its resilience, openness, and diversity.

When we started this project, our ambition was to provide clear answers and recommendations. Instead, it raised an even longer set of questions.

This report marks the start of a new conversation. One where we need your help. In 2019 we will be conducting a deeper dive into the topic of consolidation. There will be new research through a collaboration with Chatham House. This will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Cyber Policy. We will also offer to fund for the collection of relevant data, to be made available for further research. And, of course, we will continue our conversations with you on our website, over social media, and more.

Read the 2019 Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

Learn more about the Call for Papers for the special issue on consolidation.

Applications for research funding for data collection will open 1 March and be available here.

If you have comments, questions or suggestions to the team that has worked on the report, please email

Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Alissa Cooper on the Technical Impact of Internet Consolidation

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. While preparing to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report, we interviewed Alissa Cooper to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Alissa Cooper is a Fellow at Cisco Systems. She has been serving as the Chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) since 2017. Previously, she served three years as an IETF Applications and Real-Time (ART) area director and three years on the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). She also served as the chair of the IANA Stewardship Coordination Group (ICG). At Cisco, Cooper was responsible for driving privacy and policy strategy within the company’s portfolio of real-time collaboration products before being appointed as IETF Chair. Prior to joining Cisco, Cooper served as the Chief Computer Scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, where she was a leading public interest advocate and technologist on issues related to privacy, net neutrality, and technical standards. Cooper holds a PhD from the Oxford Internet Institute and MS and BS degrees in computer science from Stanford University.

The responses below are Cooper’s personal views and do not represent the views of the IETF.

The Internet Society: This year we’re focusing our Global Internet Report report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services, and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g., companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers). Have you noticed a trend in this regard?

Alissa Cooper: Yes, although I think it would be useful to develop more quantitative measures to demonstrate the trend over time.

If yes, how does this the trend impact the IETF?

Standards development always has a strong and multifaceted relationship to market dynamics. From a technical perspective, trends toward consolidation have caused engineers in the IETF to consider the implications of their technical designs. If we design standardized communication protocols in certain ways, such protocols may be more likely to support distributed or decentralized infrastructure or services. Conversely, there are design choices we can make that could reinforce consolidation or the offering of certain services from a smaller and smaller number of large companies. This question about whether the building blocks that we design in the IETF are reinforcing the consolidation trend has come into sharper focus in recent times.

The consolidation trend also has the potential to affect who participates in the IETF and how those in the industry view the value of standardization. Larger, more prosperous companies tend to have a greater ability to support standardization work, which is often paid for out of R&D or innovation budgets. As the mix of companies that provide Internet infrastructure and services changes, the composition of IETF participants tends to change as well. That mix can also affect corporate standardization strategy. More dominant players might standardize if they perceive that it reinforces their own technology – or they might chose not to, if they perceive that it is unnecessary given their dominant position.

Could you tell us more about Hypertext Transfer Protocol Version 3 (HTTP/3) as an example of how digital dominance, or scale, can drive standard development?

HTTP/3 is a work-in-progress aiming to define how HTTP traffic will be carried over a new transport protocol, QUIC, which is also in development. Historically, there have been two main transport protocols that have seen wide deployment on the open Internet: the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Many other transport protocols have been designed and standardized over the decades, but few have seen wide deployment. Some of the reasons for this include the existence of equipment in the middle of the network that filters transport protocols it does not recognize, and the difficulty of getting support for new transport protocols into the many different operating systems running on Internet-connected devices today.

QUIC is designed specifically to overcome these barriers. QUIC traffic, including the metadata that identifies the protocol, is always encrypted, so networking equipment cannot filter it based on the metadata or the traffic content. And QUIC is built on top of UDP, so it does not require operating system modifications in order to be deployed. Thus QUIC and HTTP/3 are instructive if we look at what it takes to get a protocol deployed at scale on today’s Internet, which is truly a heterogenous network of networks.

QUIC began as an experiment at Google before it was brought to the IETF for standardization, and Google has a large deployment of its own, pre-IETF version of QUIC. I think the fact that a company with such a large footprint on the web – both from the browser/mobile device side and the server side – was interested in standardizing this definitely caused others to become more interested in participating in the effort. But this is certainly not a case where a single large company has dominated the standards process; in fact we have seen quite the opposite, with participation from dozens of organizations and individuals as well as major improvements to the IETF version of the protocol that are incompatible with Google’s existing deployed version.

Do you consider this a positive or negative example of digital dominance? If successful, could it allow a dominant browser provider to gain significant market power (as argued here)?

If QUIC and HTTP/3 deliver on their design goals – improving performance and security – then my expectation would be that all browsers and web servers that choose to implement them will reap those benefits. I think in general wider use of encryption at the transport and application layers is a positive development because it helps to protect end users’ data in transit to the sites and services to which that data was destined anyway. It creates an impetus to re-think how certain network management and measurement functions that previously required access to unencrypted data can work. This may require some re-engineering, but my hope is that it will not detract from the overall positive impacts of transport protocol evolution.

An IETF working document (or Internet-Draft), Considerations on Internet Consolidation and the Internet Architecture, was recently published. Can you tell us more of what’s being investigated and proposed?

The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) provides long-range technical direction for the Internet’s development. This draft document arose out of conversations that the IAB has had concerning consolidation on the Internet. We have tried to tease out the technical and economic factors that may be contributing to consolidation. This includes looking at the underlying security and privacy properties of networks and services and the evolution of content delivery. The draft currently poses questions and does not provide many answers. The IAB is continuing to discuss how we can learn more about why expectations for decentralized protocol deployment are or are not coming to fruition in practice.

Much of the public debate seems to focus on consolidation from predominantly a perspective of negative implications. Can you think of any positive aspects of consolidation?

Sure. In some cases larger entities can have faster, broader, positive impacts on end users. Today, if one or a small handful of the largest web properties, content delivery networks, or email service providers chooses to deploy a new security technology or implement a performance-enhancing feature, those improvements can benefit millions or billions of users on short order. Furthermore, the ability of larger entities to collect more data about what is happening on the network can help improve the quality of the services they provide, for example by enhancing their ability to identify denial-of-service attacks or spam.

Is competition law the only solution to consolidation problems? If “code is law,” how can the technical community help prevent the potentially negative consequences of consolidation trends?

There are people in the technical community who are trying to identify the relationships between technical design choices and consolidation, but many of the drivers for the consolidation we are witnessing are based in business and economics, not purely in technology. I always found Lessig’s articulation of how technical, economic, social, and legal influences reinforce one another to be a more compelling framework for understanding the shape of the environment in which technology exists than the more simplistic “code is law” tag line. Specifically when it comes to dominance and market power, competition law is likely the most powerful tool available, and one whose application could yield both immediate and longer term effects unlike any that may be achievable merely by shifting the design of the sorts of technical building blocks that we specify in the IETF.

Is there hope, from a technical perspective, in data portability as a way of addressing consolidation concerns?

The main barriers to data portability are not technical ones. We have a multiplicity of ways to port data of all kinds between services in a standardized fashion, if the incentive or regulatory requirements to do so were in place.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

My biggest fear is that as the Internet gets more deeply ingrained into society, that it will be increasingly blamed for society’s ills. I believe in tackling problems at their source. At times that means deploying a technological solution or regulating how technology is used, but at other times it means regulating behavior or inspiring behavioral change.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

The Internet has a long history of serving as an open, global platform for communication and human connection. My hope is that even as market dynamics shift, technology evolves, and geopolitics change, the fundamental properties that have made the Internet the most successful communications medium in human history will remain solid and flourish.

We’re getting ready to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report. Read the concept note.


Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Chris Yiu of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. While preparing to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report, we interviewed Chris Yiu to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Yiu is a senior policy fellow for technology in the Renewing the Centre team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His work focuses on how new technologies can be used to enhance the functioning of liberal democracy, and on policy solutions to the new economic challenges of automation and the digital economy. Chris was previously a general manager at Uber and has held senior roles in a number of public, private, and third-sector organizations. He recently authored the report, “A New Deal for Big Tech: Next-Generation Regulation Fit for the Internet Age (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2018).

The Internet Society: In your report you write that this “new deal for big tech” is urgent for protecting democratic values globally. Why?

Chris Yiu: Political leaders face an external environment characterised by disruption and rapid change, which people of all backgrounds are struggling to make sense of. Looking at the rise of populism across the West, what started as a closed-minded turn against globalisation is now being compounded by a backward-looking turn against progress. Technology has stripped traditional gatekeepers of their power, delivered real progress for consumers and businesses, and increased many freedoms. But it has also brought significant economic upheaval and heightened cultural pressures, along with huge unknowns about the future. Most importantly, technology has concentrated power in the hands of a relatively small number of companies that all too often wield it clumsily and without sufficient legitimacy.

In your report you also argue that regulation for legacy industries aren’t relevant for the pace and scale of the Internet, and that a new approach for regulating technology companies is needed. Why?

The Internet has fundamentally changed the operating environment for both companies and regulators, with very different cost structures giving rise to new incentives and business models. Across the board, technology-based challengers have not so much out-competed incumbent firms as made them obsolete. The same is true of old approaches to regulation: detailed rules and permissions worked well when markets were finite and relatively stable, but the Internet is characterised by effectively infinite scalability and rapid change. And of course we can no longer view it as a special case that can be dealt with by a few careful carve-outs and exemptions, because in today’s environment it has a bearing on every aspect of our economy and society. A fresh approach, based on stronger accountability coupled with more freedom to innovate, is the best way to align private incentives with the public interest.

You’ve written about competition law’s limitations, as have other popular media like The Economist recently. What is the role of data and consumer protection in your proposed new approach?

Stronger controls on things like data protection and privacy are necessary but not sufficient for consumers to make better decisions or competition to work effectively. In the report we talk about ensuring users have a meaningful understanding of what they are signing up to. This is different to impenetrable terms and conditions or being able to download your data file – when convenience supersedes most other considerations, people need an easy way to assess whether they are happy with the basic relationship they have with a service. More broadly, when we think about competition policy it’s important to remember that Internet-era cost structures and business models tend to result in firms getting large because they are doing something consumers want. So a long view of protecting consumers should not be overly concerned with scale per se, and instead place more weight on ensuring new challengers can get established.

You have suggested that a new regulator is needed to promote tech company responsibility, increase consumers’ digital literacy, and “rewrite obsolete rules for the Internet age.” Are existing regulators not up to the task of doing these things?

There are a couple of aspects to this. First, the core capabilities of many traditional regulators are not necessarily those required to exercise effective oversight of new, technology-based business models and markets. To be able to match the power of large tech companies, regulators need to be expert and fluent in the same fundamentals of Internet-scale operations, speed, data, and innovation. Large tech companies recruit different for different sorts of skills and mindsets compared to incumbent firms; we know that making this pivot is hard for traditional organisations and there is no reason to think that the regulators that mirror them are any different.

Second, the Internet is shaping the operating environment for all industries, and the impact of fundamental shifts in things like cost structures and business models is being felt across the economy. So when it comes to public policy, there is more commonality in the systemic issues arising from big tech firms across different sectors than there is between individual firms and the narrow markets they have disrupted. This puts a premium on a new generation of regulator anchored on the Internet rather than traditional sectors or industries.

Is there hope in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Data portability is an important principle, but I don’t think we can expect this alone to be enough to solve the biggest policy challenges. For one thing, as services achieve scale and differentiate from one another, it’s not always clear what portability would mean in practice (it’s easy to imagine porting your profile info and avatar from one service to another, but content far less so, let alone data observed or inferred about you). And of course some of the data that would have the greatest impact on competition – i.e., a user’s social graph – is explicitly off limits under regulation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Given the propensity of large firms to try to use their scale to consolidate their power, stronger checks on acquisitions of potentially competitive startups may be a better lever.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

That in the face of unrelenting external pressure, our political leaders and policymakers will get stuck trying to fight the Internet rather than accepting it and figuring out how to maximise its opportunities and mitigate its challenges. This could manifest in many ways, from a fracturing of the global commons into closed regional blocs, through to overbearing or poorly designed policy responses that do major collateral damage or inadvertently favour large incumbents over smaller competitors. In particular Europe and North America have much in common in terms of shared values; a renewed period of transatlantic cooperation on technology is of the utmost importance, but without strong political leadership it may be easier to turn inward than work together.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

We can’t uninvent the Internet – and even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. Despite all of the challenges – both economic and cultural – that we are grappling with, the Internet itself and the big tech companies that shape so much of daily lives are the product of a benign operating environment anchored on liberal democracy. And so I am optimistic that we can move past the techlash and leverage technology as a source of optimism about the future. A structured dialogue between those changing the world with new technologies, and those seeking to respond with policy and regulation, can still get us to a place where the benefits of technology are widely shared.

Read “Splintering the Internet: The Unintended Consequence of Regulation.”

Economy Internet Governance Privacy Public Policy Reports Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Orla Lynskey on Data in the Age of Consolidation

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Orla Lynskey to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Orla Lynskey is an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her primary area of research interest is European Union data protection law. Her monograph, The Foundations of EU Data Protection Law (Oxford University Press, 2015), explores the potential and limits of individual control over personal data, or “informational self-determination’” in the data protection framework. More recently, her work has focused on collective approaches to data protection rights and mechanisms to counterbalance asymmetries of power in the online environment. Lynskey is an editor of International Data Privacy Law and the Modern Law Review and is a member of the EU Commission’s multistakeholder expert group on GDPR. She holds an LLB from Trinity College, Dublin, an LLM from the College of Europe (Bruges) and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Before entering academia, she worked as a competition lawyer in Brussels and as a teaching assistant at the College of Europe.

The Internet Society: You recently edited a symposium edition of International Data Privacy Law (IDPL) in which you argue that the interplay of law related to data protection, competition, and consumer protection is at a crucial crossroads. Why, and how does this play out in the Internet domain?

Orla Lynskey: These areas of law are at a crossroads in two senses. The first is that there has now been increasing recognition from regulators that they do overlap in some circumstances. A good example of this is the reference in the Microsoft/LinkedIn merger decision to data protection as a parameter on which firms compete, or the claim that Facebook is abusing its position of market power by making access to its service conditional on excessive data collection on various third-party websites being investigated by the German Competition Authority. However, we are also now at a crossroad in a second sense: having recognised that these areas of law need to be applied in a holistic manner, we now need to consider from a practical, procedural perspective how this overlap can be managed.

You’ve written elsewhere that digital consolidation can have an effect on digital inequality by giving platforms not just market power, but also the “power of providence.” What do you mean by this and how does it impact marginalised communities in particular?

Providence is defined in various ways, including as a form of non-human influence that controls people’s lives. I argue in the paper that dominant digital platforms have a “power of providence,” as they are – like the eye of providence – all-seeing: they have the ability to link and analyse diverse datasets in a way that provides a comprehensive overview of the lives of individuals, rendering them transparent in the process. Furthermore, they can use this unique vantage point in order to influence individuals in ways that we might until now have viewed as dystopian, for instance through personalised political advertising. Finally, the Internet’s architecture and the terms used to describe its processes (for instance, “machine learning”) give the false impression that the way in which our data is used to influence us online and nudge us in particular directions is untethered from human input, or is “neutral.” In this sense, it is given a quasi-divine status.

I suggest that this power of providence can have the particularly pernicious effect of exacerbating existing societal inequalities. I argue in the paper that this ability to use data to influence people can be used to discriminate, to differentiate and also to create perceptions. For instance, I was able to draw on the work of other scholars to indicate that data mining facilitates differentiation on the basis of socioeconomic status, which is not something that discrimination law prohibits. This research suggests that the poor are subject to more surveillance with higher stakes and are particularly vulnerable to data mining processes as a result of the devices used to connect to the Internet (notably, mobile phones which are less secure than other devices). While differentiation via data mining is not the sole purview of platforms which such power, their privileged position gives them superior data-mining capacity and means the existing information and power asymmetries are exacerbated.

Can competition law challenge the power of providence? What about data protection law? How can these work together to protect digital rights?

Competition law provisions are the only legal provisions explicitly designed to constrain the exercise of private power and so it makes sense to consider whether they can be of assistance in challenging this power of providence. I believe that, at a minimum, competition law should not make matters worse by, for instance, facilitating data-driven mergers that further consolidate our data in the hands of a very limited number of private actors. However, in some circumstances competition law could also limit abusive behaviour – for instance, exploitative terms and conditions for data usage – by firms with market power.

That said, competition law has its own limits and should only ever be a part of the overall jigsaw puzzle, with data protection law playing a leading role in regulating how our personal data can be used. To date, EU data protection law has not been robustly enforced, but I am one of those who remain optimistic that with stronger enforcement this system could be really effective.

If data protection, consumer protection, and competition law are all important in challenging harmful digital dominance, how do the different regulatory agencies responsible for dealing with these respective issues work together without encroaching on each other’s domains? Is there a need for better multistakeholder collaboration in this regard?

It is this question – of the division of labour between regulatory authorities – that has yet to be really ironed out. Ideally, as the European Data Protection Supervisor has proposed, these agencies would collaborate with one another under the auspices of a “Digital Clearing House,” or something similar.

Germany recently announced plans to try to curb digital dominance using competition law. Have you noticed any trends when it comes to other competition authorities’ responses to tech dominance around the world, and particularly how they are defining relevant markets?

There is definitely a growing recognition of the power of technology companies amongst regulators, and the wider public. This may be where competition law hits its limits, however: competition law provisions do not prevent a company from acquiring a position of market power, they simply make it unlawful for that company to abuse that position of market power in a way that is exploitative or that would exclude equally efficient competitors from the market. Economic regulation could, for instance, force tech companies to ensure structural separation between various operations (e,g., a structural separation between Facebook and WhatsApp). However, this would require legislative intervention.

The exception to this is in the context of mergers, where competition authorities get to look at the potential future impact of a transaction on the market. Here, I have argued in the past that data-driven mergers should be treated in an analogous way to media mergers and subject not only to an economic assessment but also to a broader non-competition assessment to gauge their impact on data protection and privacy. This is one of the ideas being considered in Germany and I think it is likely other competition authorities will introduce similar measures in due course.

What do you think of the idea that user data should be given digital property rights (i.e., that platforms should pay users for their data)?

Property rights in personal data are a terrible idea: they offer no real advantages compared to the current legal framework and risk exacerbating information and power asymmetries while undermining data protection as a fundamental right. Giving property rights in data would not strengthen our hand when it comes to negotiating with the tech giants, rather it would simply mean that we would lose all rights over that data once we entered into contracts with these companies. I also worry that going down this route would make data protection a luxury that can be enjoyed by those who could afford not to have their data processed, even perhaps creating the skewed incentive to reveal more data, or more sensitive data to profit from it. This is incompatible with the EU Charter right to data protection. I discuss this issue in my book on the foundations of EU data protection law. 

Is there hope in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Potentially. One explanation for the GDPR right to data portability is that it may empower consumers to switch service providers if they are unhappy with a service (for instance, to switch from Facebook to a mythical alternative if you are unsatisfied with the quality of the data protection offered). However, as I discuss in my research, the impact of this right on competition and innovation is ambiguous. It could, for instance, deter innovation by locking in the standards used by incumbent companies or increasing the costs of startups. This is all the more so as it does not require interoperability. However, whether interoperability is desirable from a data protection perspective is equally contestable. I would suggest that portability should be viewed through the lens of individual control over personal data rather than simply as a market tool, given these ambiguous effects.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

My main fear about the Internet is that a medium which promised so much for the advancement of rights – such as freedom of expression and of association – may end up having corrosive and divisive real world effects. One of the advantages of the Internet was that it offered people the opportunity to connect with those with similar niche interests (the Eric Cantona Appreciation Society, for example) but the personalisation of all content, including for instance political content, may push this to an extreme. That is not to say that personalisation is the only factor feeding into this concern, needless to say.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

I think the Internet at present is based on a data bubble that needs bursting. The primary example of this is the excessive data processing that online behavioural advertising entails. Even if we could argue that processing of personal data is the quid pro quo for access to online services and content that are free at the point of access, the amount of personal data processed for that exchange is clearly disproportionate. Regulators have not yet gotten to grips with this but data protection law provides a potential ground on which to challenge this processing: when considering whether consent is freely given, utmost account needs to be taken of whether the service is made conditional on consent to unnecessary processing. I have not yet seen any empirical evidence that convinces me that online behavioural advertising is so much more effective than contextual advertising that it justifies this excessive incursion into our rights.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Payal Malik of the Competition Commission of India

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Payal Malik to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Payal Malik is the Economics Adviser and Head of the Economics Division (Chief Economist) at the Competition Commission of India. She is on secondment from the University of Delhi, where she is an associate professor of Economics. Her areas of expertise are competition law, policy and regulation. She has many years of economic consulting experience in network industries such as power and telecommunication, information and communication technologies (ICTs), innovation systems, and infrastructure. She was previously a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia and a senior consultant at the Center for Infrastructure and Regulation, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), India. At NCAER she was a lead researcher on various infrastructure development projects, including telecoms, electricity, highways, and water and sanitation. She was also on the team that drafted the Electricity Act of India, ushering competition into the sector.

The Internet Society: This year we’re focusing our annual Internet Futures report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating vertical and horizontal consolidation trends in and across the access, services and application layers of the Internet respectively. Have you noticed any trends in this regard?

Payal Malik: Yes, we have observed both horizontal and vertical consolidation in the Internet society. Consolidation trends have been observed in digital payment services, digital farming applications, e-commerce platforms, etc. Many cases were related to acquisition of shareholdings in e-commerce firms by investment companies. For example, Walmart recently acquired a major e-commerce firm in India and entered the market of e-commerce platforms. Furthermore, many firms in the digital space, and most of the new-born companies, fall under the de minimis exemption thresholds and hence their acquisition is exempted from notification. Thus, there may be more consolidation going on that hits the “blind spot.”

You’ve long worked on competition issues in various network industries, including telecoms. How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry in India (e.g., Facebook and Free Basics)?

The technology has changed drastically especially in case of the telecom sector. With the advent of Jio (a new entrant), the total telecom subscribers in India (936 million in March 2016) increased by a massive 28% to 1,202.22 million in March 2018. Further, the prices of telecom services declined significantly and data consumption per month increased by 924%. The growth of Big Data has led to innovation, the development of new sectors, and the penetration of technology even in case of traditional sectors like education and health. The rise of Big Data has also created issues of privacy, data monopolisation, etc.

Severe backlash was witnessed against Facebook’s Free Basics services in the country and the same was banned in 2016. Consequently, net neutrality rules were notified in 2018 that prevented “any form of discrimination or interference” with data, including “blocking, degrading, slowing down, or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.” The view of the telecom regulator was that competition alone will not be sufficient to address the problem of telecom firms becoming gatekeepers to the Internet and strong ex-ante rules are required to regulate the behaviour of infrastructure firms such that it acts as a non-discriminatory platform. The issue of data localisation is now gaining currency in India and there seems to be some protectionist undercurrents to the whole issue.

Does this the trend impact India, or is more of a global issue?

Digital economy by its very nature is such that effects will inevitably cross state-nation boundaries and India, being an open economy, does feel the impact. Technological advances in other jurisdictions percolate to India, leading to innovation within the country, complementing the existing innovation ecosystem. We also recognise the challenges concerning Big Data and consumer privacy in the competition realm, especially as we have more players entering local markets. To address such conflicting issues we are trying to find ways and means to balance user privacy and technological innovation. We are in process of drafting privacy law which may be finalised soon and become an Act of the Parliament.

What makes the technology sector different when it comes to competition regulation?

The technology sector is different than other sectors as there are numerous relevant markets having multiple sides, each with specific competition dynamics. This makes the delineation of relevant market difficult. Further, markets are such that given market at one point in time mutates into another through the exploitation of complementarities. Therefore, a nuanced assessment has to be adopted by taking into account the facts, market, and technology in question. With the advent of Big Data in digital markets, data-rich entities are able to generate more user data with the help of feedback and monetisation loops. This leads to concerns of abuse of market power, algorithms, and collusions, etc.

As a competition regulator, how do you balance the need to not hamper innovation with the need for promoting competition?

When the cases involving dynamic competition, the Competition Commission tries to strike a balance between short-term static efficiencies and the longer-term gains that arise from innovation. Assessing technology sector issues requires an understanding of the underlying technology and a comprehensive knowledge of market developments. We’re also very aware of the fact that a given market at one point in time might mutate into another through the exploitation of complementarities. Further, during the assessment, we don’t emphasise the fact that one firm has entrenched market power in a particular industry. This is because taking such a stance would damage incentives to innovate, and would be a denial of the realities of market preferences. A nuanced assessment, based on the facts of the case and the market and technology in question, is therefore the strategy that the Commission has adopted in the analysis of antitrust cases involving digital economies in India.

Germany recently announced plans to try to curb digital dominance using competition law. Have you noticed any trends when it comes to other competition authorities’ responses to tech dominance around the world, and particularly how they are defining relevant markets? How do they differ between regions?

We do keep a track of international developments taking place in field of digital economy. Developed economies across the globe have now stepped in for curtailing digital monopolies, which may be a consequence of the economic realities of their countries, however given the peculiarities of each country these issues may have a local context. As far as defining a relevant market is concerned, we do consider definitions defined by other jurisdictions. We feel that Germany and France have adopted an aggressive approach to prevent digital dominance, which India cannot adopt at present time when digital markets are at their evolving stage. With the help of complementary laws, we hope to create a level playing field for digital players in India, including startups.

Is competition law the best solution to these consolidation problems? 

Yes, we do believe competition law is the best solution for consolidation problems. But there is a possibility that traditional asset/turnover criteria may fail to capture potentially anti-competitive transactions in the tech sector. Some transactions in this market may fall below turnover-based thresholds because the target’s products are offered for free, or have yet to come to market, and generate little turnover. In such instances, the target’s value may not best be correlated to its sales. The value of the target’s sales is a rather poor indicator of the merger’s significance for competition. Thus, asset/turnover-based notification thresholds may have a ‘blind spot’ if relied on alone. Therefore, thresholds levels must be modified to take these blind spots into account.

Is there potential in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Data portability allows users to receive their data back in a format that is conducive to reuse with another service. The purpose of data portability is to promote interoperability between systems and to give greater choice and control to the user with respect to their data held by other entities. The aim is also to create a level playing field for newly established service providers that wish to take on incumbents, but are unable to do so because of the significant barriers posed by lock-in and network effects. In line with the EU’s GDPR, Indian Data Protection Bill also gives right to data portability to users. This is important as we do believe data portability has the potential to counter data effects.

Besides the potential negative implications related to digital dominance, what are your fears for the future of the Internet?

The Internet has undoubtedly revolutionised the way people shop, work, socialise, entertain themselves, etc. It has had some very serious consequences on the democratic edifices of countries with the ability of the Internet to spread misinformation and changing people’s behaviours and preferences. Second, I will be very worried if perfect price discrimination is implementable based on the individual customer data that digital monopolies have, as this will lead to killing of the positive impact of competition in technology markets. Last, though there is no reason to believe chilling of innovation maybe the final nail in the coffin. But I think that is too apocalyptical as innovation is highly contestable. 

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

I hope the Internet will continue to develop new ideas, increase entrepreneurship, help make consumers’ lives easier, bring in transparency in terms of prices and quality, reduce intermediaries in supply chain, help transform societies, etc. For all this to happen, innovation needs to be protected and the government and competition regulators are aware of this need.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Natali Helberger on the Impact of Consolidation on Media Diversity

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Natali Helberger to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Natali Helberger is a professor of Information Law at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Law. She researches how the role of information users is changing under the influence of information technology, and the regulation of converging information and communications markets. Focus points of her research are the interface between technology and information law, user rights and the changing role of the user in information law and policy. Natali has conducted research for the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and national governments and is a regular speaker at national and international conferences. Among others, she is member of an Expert Committee of the Council of Europe on AI and Human Rights, and one of the leaders of the Dutch VSNU Citizenship & Democracy research agenda.

The Internet Society: You recently wrote a chapter for Damian Tambini and Martin Moore’s book Digital Dominance: The Power of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (2018, Oxford University Press), focusing specifically on the impact of consolidation on media diversity. Can you tell us more? 

Natali Helberger: Damian and Martin asked me to look into the implications of the rise of digital online platforms for media diversity. Media diversity is the idea that in a democratic society there should be a variety of viewpoints and ideas from different speakers, presented to us via the media. One key trend that we see is people access news content and media content more and more not only via traditional media but also or even exclusively via new information intermediaries, such as social media platforms, apps, AI assistants, and search engines (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2016, 2017; Pew Research Center 2016).

These information intermediaries have stepped in to fill a critical gap in the news delivery chain: consolidating attention and helping users to make a selection of the news that they find relevant. The result is a structural transformation in which news is turning into a customizable product that can be carefully targeted and adjusted to individual recipients and the demands of advertisers. The presence of such data-driven, heavily targeted platforms does not necessarily need to be a challenge to a diverse information environment, as long as they are open to diverse voices, and there are alternative sources of information. But what to make of a situation in which there remain only a few dominant global sources of information? And in the light of such a dominant player and a heavily targeted news environment, what are the prospects of still encountering diverse media content if we do not succeed in preserving a flourishing media environment also outside platforms?

This year we’re focusing our annual Global Internet Report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services, and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g., companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).

What do you think of this trend?

One consolidation trend that I am observing with some concern is the consolidation of the many different functions that the we use the Internet for in a few, powerful platforms: whether it is access to media content and news, social interaction, political information and interaction with our democratic representatives, buying and selling services, interacting with government services, with teachers and educational institutions, doing research – all these activities are facilitated by a few players who provide us with a super convenient service architecture to do so. And because their services are so good and convenient to use, we increasingly rely on them and make them, step-by-step, the backbone of our digital life. We should be concerned about the dependencies that this creates, not only in the economic but also in the political sense. Public institutions, such as universities, political parties, governments, public services, and media in particular should have a role to play in countering this trend, and facilitating alternative venues and infrastructures of public life on the internet.

How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been studying technology’s impact on the media? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?  

I think that for some countries we are very close to completing our transition from an analogue to a data society. In the Netherlands, for example, the postal services have begun removing post boxes because few people write letters anymore, and in the communication modes between citizens and public services, digital has become the default. Having said so, I think it is important to acknowledge that the extent to which technology has already changed societies differs from country to country, and even for regions. We must be very careful that these differences do not result in new divides and inequalities when it comes to access to services and knowledge.

Regarding the backlash against the tech industry it is important to distinguish between the tech and the industry part in “tech industry.” It is up to society how tech can be used to advance human welfare, society, and fundamental rights, but also to decide in which situations we do not want technology to make important decisions about humans. Think of the use of AI in deciding who should get access to vital services such as health care, schooling, or justice. The tech industry can be an important partner in doing so. There can also be situations in which the interests of society and industry are not aligned or even opposed. And it is here where societies and governments must push back, and should not shy away protecting public interests and human rights against industry interests.

What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?

I am concerned about the shifts in not only economic but also political power that the Internet and our transition to a data society have caused. This is a shift that our current legal system is poorly prepared for. (Some) platforms are an instructive example of this. As important venues for people to inform themselves, form their political opinions, and interact with peers as well as their democratic representatives, these platforms are no longer only economic actors. They are also active actors in political processes, like elections or decisions about new laws. And because of the influence about the way people receive information and form opinions, data power can easily turn into political power. Commercial laws, like competition law and consumer law, are not prepared to deal with the political power that data can give. It is high time that we think of how to contain the political power of platforms, for example by revisiting our rules about political advertising, concentration of communication power, but also division of political power.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

That the Internet continues to be a place where we can explore, connect, explore, and play – and do so without the need to be constantly alert about our privacy, whether we are being watched, manipulated or how our behavour can be used to advance someone’s else goal.

I am tremendously grateful that I am living and researching in this age of almost unlimited access to information and communication, and I hope that my work, and that of my colleagues at the Institute for Information Law in Amsterdam can help to make the Internet remain this place.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

IETF Technology

New Internet Draft: Considerations on Internet Consolidation and the Internet Architecture

Are there assumptions about the Internet architecture that no longer hold in a world where larger, more centralized entities provide big parts of the Internet service? If the world changes, the Internet and its technology/architecture may have to match those changes. It appears that level[ing] the playing field for new entrants or small players brings potential benefits. Are there technical solutions that are missing today?

These questions were one of many asked in a new Internet Draft published yesterday by former IETF Chair Jari Arkko on behalf of several Internet Architecture Board (IAB) members with the title “Considerations on Internet Consolidation and the Internet Architecture”:

The draft text is based on the IAB “Consolidation” blog post back in March 2018as well as a new post Jari and Brian Trammell have written for the APNIC and RIPE sites.

The abstract of the Internet Draft is:

Many of us have held a vision of the Internet as the ultimate distributed platform that allows communication, the provision of services, and competition from any corner of the world. But as the Internet has matured, it seems to also feed the creation of large, centralised entities in many areas. This phenomenon could be looked at from many different angles, but this memo considers the topic from the perspective of how available technology and Internet architecture drives different market directions.

The document discusses different aspects of consolidation including economic and technical factors. It ends with a section 3, “Actions,” that lists these questions and comments for discussion:

  •  Are there assumptions about the Internet architecture that no longer hold in a world where larger, more centralised entities provide big parts of the Internet service? If the world changes, the Internet and its technology/architecture may have to match those changes. It appears that level the playing field for new entrants or small players brings potential benefits. Are there technical solutions that are missing today?
  • Assuming that one does not wish for regulation, technologies that support distributed architectures, open source implementations of currently centralised network functions, or help increase user’s control can be beneficial. Federation, for example, would help enable distributed services in situations where smaller entities would like to collaborate.
  • Similarly, in an asymmetric power balance between users and services, tools that enable the user to control what information is provided to a particular service can be very helpful. Some such tools exist, for instance, in the privacy and tracking-prevention modes of popular browsers but why are these modes not the default, and could we develop them further?
  • It is also surprising that in the age of software-defined everything, we can program almost anything else except the globally provided, packaged services. Opening up interfaces would allow the building of additional, innovative services, and better match with users’ needs.
  • Silver bullets are rare, of course. Internet service markets sometimes fragment rather than cooperate through federation. And the asymmetric power balances are easiest changed with data that is in your control, but it is much harder to change when someone else holds it. Nevertheless, the exploration of solutions to ensure the Internet is kept open for new innovations and in the control of users is very important.
  • What IETF topics that should be pursued to address some of the issues around consolidation?
  • What measurements relating to the developments centralization or consolidation should be pursued?
  • What research – such as distributed Internet architectures – should be driven forward?

These are all excellent questions, many of which have no easy answers. The draft encourages people interested in this topic to join the IAB’s “architecture-discuss” mailing list (open to anyone interested to subscribe) as one place to discuss this. This is all part of the ongoing effort by the IAB to encourage a broader discussion on these changes that have taken place to the way in which the Internet operates.

It is great to see this Internet Draft and I do look forward to the future discussions to see what actions or activities may emerge. It’s a challenging issue. As the draft discusses, there are both positive and negative aspects to consolidation of services – and the tradeoffs are not always clear.

This broader issue of consolidation or centralization has been an area of interest for us at the Internet Society for quite some time, dating back to our “future Internet scenarios” in 2008 and even before. More recently, our Global Internet Report 2017 on the “Paths to Our Digital Future” recognized the concerns – so much so that we decided to focus our next version of the GIR on this specific topic. (Read our 2018 GIR concept note).

Beyond the Global Internet Report, we’ve published articles relating to consolidation – and it’s been a theme emerging in several of our “Future Thinking” posts. I know that we will continue to write and speak about this theme because at its core it is about the future of what we want the Internet to be.

Please do join in these conversations. Share this Internet Draft with others. Share our 2017 Global Internet Report. Engage in the discussions. Help identify what the issues may be – and what solutions might be.

The Internet must be for everyone. Together we can #ShapeTomorrow.

Image credit: a cropped section of a photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future Technology

Future Thinking: Mozilla Director of Public Policy Chris Riley on the Internet Economy

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Chris Riley to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Riley is Director, Public Policy at Mozilla, working to advance the open Internet through public policy analysis and advocacy, strategic planning, coalition building, and community engagement. Chris manages the global Mozilla public policy team and works on all things Internet policy, motivated by the belief that an open, disruptive Internet delivers tremendous socioeconomic benefits, and that if we as a global society don’t work to protect and preserve the Internet’s core features, those benefits will go away. Prior to joining Mozilla, Chris worked as a program manager at the U.S. Department of State on Internet freedom, a policy counsel with the nonprofit public interest organization Free Press, and an attorney-advisor at the Federal Communications Commission.  

The Internet Society: Why is there a need for promoting a better understanding of technology amongst policy wonks, and of policy among technologists?

Chris Riley: While I started out as a mathematics and computer science student, I decided to shift into law and ultimately policy because I was concerned that the evolution of law and regulation around the tech industry wasn’t being driven from a point of technical clarity and understanding. I was worried  that this could have consequences, both intended and unintended, for the terrific socioeconomic benefits that we can and should derive from the Internet.

Today I say to every new cohort of employees at Mozilla that, as Lawrence Lessig once quipped, “code is law,” but “law is law,” too. Mozilla is at its strongest when we think about these things together, and the Internet is the same – when both the people building code and the people building legal systems have enough of a mutual understanding of what’s important and how the other works. The technologists need a broad policy understanding so that they can build that into their systems and their system policies; while the law and policy designers must have enough of an understanding of the technical side that they design law and policy that reflect and amplify the good parts of technology while leaving plenty of room for future flexibility, agility and innovation. I think it’s really those two things coming together that’s vital to the ecosystem as a whole.

How does Mozilla position itself in the Internet economy? Are you a platform?

Although there are some services that we have that are platform-ish (e.g. our acquisition of Pocket in 2017), the core of what we do is related to the fact that we’re a software company. Being a software company is really at the core of Mozilla’s ethos. We write open-source software and we distribute it to the world both as code and packages (downloads and applications).

I don’t expect Mozilla will, in the future, want to emerge as more of a platform company than a software company. We don’t have the scale or the style or the structure to do that. We’re small; we’re non-profit. We’re not ever going to be the model that’s geared towards the platform and social network economy of growing network effects at great debt in order to recuperate the economic benefits. We’re a mature and established business, and really focus on our strength as open-source software developers. That said, we have the right kind of expertise, mission and charter to speak for the Internet in a positive way. We’re therefore a hard-to-define duality of non-profit, mission-driven and software company. This is why it so hard to categorize us.

This year we’re focusing our annual Internet Futures report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g. companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).

Have you noticed a trend in this regard?

We’ve definitely noticed that the Internet is headed towards a more and more centralized future, defined in that sense by both horizontal and vertical centralization trends. We have fewer effective competitors who are presenting the same kinds of substitutable services to users, as well as fewer meaningful choices for users among servers within a single layer. In addition to horizontal consolidation, we’re also seeing many vertical mergers within the tech sector.

I think the world we live in now is too often one in which investment in start-up companies is geared towards reaching the point where they can be sold to one of the existing big players rather than grow into a big and independent enterprise itself. This is a challenge for me and for others because we grew up with an Internet where today’s big company is going to be tomorrow’s second tier. It’s not that I want to penalise any individual companies, but I want to believe in a market where we have the capacity to grow new companies that can become the giants of the next generation of the Internet. I’m not sure we’re there anymore. I think partly the reason why we’re not there is that some of the big companies today are aggressively staying ahead of the trend through massive investments in research and development and, to that extent, kudos to them, and may they continue to have the opportunity to outcompete others and continue to grow from that perspective.

But we’re reaching a point now where it’s going to be far too easy to bolster a weak product in one of these markets by effectively tying it to a dominant product in another market. And that’s the point where competition might have failed. That’s the point where we see good ideas get squelched not because of any technical or systematic problems with their design, implementation or approach, but simply because they weren’t being offered by or interested in being acquired by one of the existing dominant ecosystems.

How does this the trend impact Mozilla?

Concentration and consolidation is an issue that goes back to Mozilla’s history in a very deep way. We were effectively founded to respond to the duopoly of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. We decided users should have a choice in web browsing and so we created something that became effective and even better than what Microsoft was offering. The window of opportunity we had to create this product was aided in no small part by competition inquiries into Microsoft that were ongoing then. Today, we want to ensure that future Mozillas will have the space to see places where some things are underperforming and to then innovate. We’re looking for the same opportunities ourselves as we’re seeking to diversify our product portfolio beyond Firefox.

[To read more about Mozilla’s thoughts on the issue of dominance and APIs specifically, see Mozilla’s recent submission to the US Federal Trade Commission on competition and consumer protection as it affects communications systems such as the Internet.]

How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?

In the US, overwhelmingly so. In Europe, less so, because I feel that Europe was pretty much already there. I frequently categorize 2017 in the U.S. as the year that everyone starts to attack tech.  For many, many years, the tech industry had experienced a honeymoon period with the public and policymakers thanks to the scale of investment and growth, and the pace at which shiny new things that users like were produced by our industry.

We were forgiven the occasional (or so it seemed) negative social or economic  consequences that came with that. But that window of time has now closed. I think that time frame was shorter outside the US because many of the economic benefits that came from this industry were imbued here; it benefited the U.S. and the American economy. So those not quite so flushed with the economic benefits of the industry were quicker to see the unintended consequences and other social and economic harms that came from this model.

Certainly in the U.S., at least, we’ve seen growing awareness of problems associated with centralization. We’ve seen problems like the discrimination that can be reintroduced with machine learning systems that are trained by discriminatory data getting well-deserved public attention. We’ve seen incredible concerns with contentious and unpleasant, harmful, and sometimes illegal speech that appears on platforms and how platforms respond to that.

The world is therefore dramatically different now than to what it was two years ago in terms of how the public view the tech industry. I think it’s important for Mozilla and my colleagues in the tech industry to understand this dynamic and to really strive to make the Internet better. To try to turn that tide around. To acknowledge that there are problems and not everything is perfect. That we have to make some changes both internally and externally in the laws and regulations around us. We need to be serious, open, honest and collaborative in how we approach these problems so that we can get them solved.

What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?

I’m worried about a future of the Internet where users are choosing among four or five vertically integrated stacks of applications and services where they can’t pick and choose a heterogenous Internet experience from amongst them and where nobody with a brilliant idea can come up and create a new business because that space is already effectively occupied and there’s no room for them to grow, and no investment in their ideas because the economic model doesn’t make sense for a new business. If we reach a world where we have vertically integrated silos, competition would have failed. But I still very much believe that we can salvage it.

How should we prevent this from happening? Is competition law the best solution to these consolidation problems?

I’m worried that our understanding of competition law doesn’t deal with consolidation on the Internet properly, because traditional models of market concentration say that if you have four or five businesses that are relatively balanced, then you have a competitive market. But even if we had a competitive market in a traditional sense, it wouldn’t be the Internet.

I think there’s more that can be done with competition law and policy. The idea of U.S. antitrust law was to support consumer welfare, and it’s a powerful idea, one that hasn’t really been explored in the past thirty years or so. There’s a lot more room to interpret the existing legal precedents and statutes we already have. This is something the agencies could choose to pursue on their own, and we would welcome legislative interventions to make this a smoother process.

I think that the solution we should be pursuing in the near term as response to the consolidation trend is through competition law, rather than a reinterpretation or calling for a different kind of regulatory approach. It takes too long to do this: the last time that we tried to overhaul communications law in the United States (the Telecommunications Act of 1996), it was a twenty-year process.  If we take twenty years to address the challenge of centralization, the Internet will have been forever transformed and probably not for the better.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

My hope is that we will see an industry-wide recognition of the impact and entanglement that our work has throughout our economy and our society and a humble and thoughtful approach to how best to approach and manage the responsibility that come with that. More and more open engagement with policymakers and with the public and a restoring of the public’s faith that technology and the Internet are here to make our lives and our world better and not worse. And I do actually believe that we can get there.

We’re getting ready to launch the 2018 Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Photo ©Karen de Jager