Why R Street is engaging on international Internet policy
This post was co-authored by R Street Innovation Policy Director Mike Godwin.
Readers may notice that R Street has been increasingly vocal on international Internet-policy and tech-policy issues. For example, at year-end 2015, we filed nearly simultaneous contributions to the European Union consultation on its “Digital Single Market” and with India’s telecom regulator on the topic of “differential pricing” (aka “zero rating”).
There’s a big reason R Street has stepped up on handling international issues—namely, that international law and policy initiatives (sometimes, very bad ones) have profound effects on the Internet ecosystem on which we all depend. Just as a matter of good citizenship, R Street has determined it needs to participate in these forums, including some where the benefits of free-market dynamism and limited, balanced regulation can’t be assumed.
If members of civil society don’t step up and engage, you may be sure governments around the world will fill the vacuum. One recent example – at the second World Internet Conference in eastern China, Chinese leaders continued to justify their censorship of Internet services by framing it as “cyber sovereignty.” The Chinese government asserts its censorship of the Internet in China – where services such as Facebook, Google and Instagram are banned – is an exercise of their sovereign right as a nation to protect its people from surveillance and hacking. Civil-rights groups and Internet activists have called foul on this poor excuse for curbing free expression.
But China is only one extreme example of how claims of national sovereignty, democracy, consumer protection and human rights are invoked by governments around the world as they try to implement local policies over a global communication system. With accusations of imperialism, surveillance, monopoly, cyberattacks and consumer exploitation thrown around by governing bodies in defense of increased government regulations – affecting American companies and consumers alike – one thing has become clear: isolationism is not an option. That’s why Rwe have joined the global fray.
As mentioned above, the R Street technology and innovation policy team submitted two filings at the end of 2015 with foreign governmental bodies related to technology and innovation policy. One was a survey launched by the European Commission about the role of online platforms, with the aim to inform the development of their “Digital Single Market” strategy. The other was comments to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India about zero-rating services and differential pricing. Although they dealt with different issues in different parts of the world, both projects were a vehicle to shape policies in a way that facilitate the free flow of information over the Internet.
Many of the proposed European regulations originated as reactions to the dominance of U.S.-based tech giants, known affectionately in Europe by their French acronym, les GAFA. GAFA is the term used to refer to Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, four firms grouped together on the basis of four common characteristics:
- They are technology companies;
- They are large;
- They are based in the United States; and
- They operate (or are perceived to operate) in a vertical silo. This is why they are also known as “the stacks” or “closed ecosystems” (see image below).
Note that GAFA does not include Microsoft—we may interpret that as reflecting Microsoft’s longstanding efforts to strike a separate peace with European regulators regarding its status as the dominant operating-system and app provider.
Les GAFA are the latest bogeymen representing what some Europeans deem to be U.S. cultural neo-imperialism. They are in some ways seen as more insidious even than the mass media of U.S. culture, because they have become the foundations of communication infrastructures, thus bringing them under fire from activists concerned about U.S. government surveillance and privacy violations. The EU has responded with regulations that monitor privacy and data-protection practices through the recently finalized General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
There are signs that EU regulations might start to categorize and target certain types of service providers, rather than just their practices. The EU recently launched an open consultation asking for input about online services that they categorize as “platforms.” The consultation is a precursor to implementing jurisdictional control over companies that have become infrastructural networks, but the given definition of “online platforms” is so broad that it encompasses practically all Internet services. Many organizations, including our own, completed the EU’s online survey cognizant of the fact that it is likely a forerunner to new regulations that would jeopardize current Internet functions by putting unreasonable burdens on digital intermediaries to act as legal enforcers. The survey’s technology also attracted criticism from the tech-policy advocates for being profoundly buggy and difficult to complete, raising questions about how a governing body that creates poor Internet services will effectively govern the Internet.
We also filed comments in India’s consultation on the topic of “Zero-Rating Services and Differential Pricing as Tools to Promote Access and Development.” In our consultation with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, we argued that, under India’s network-neutrality regulation, some forms of cross-subsidization that support building out infrastructure and access ought to be allowed. Our views were cited positively in the proceedings in comments from Facebook and India’s Centre for Internet and Society.
You can find our full comments here. In short, we argued that regulation of differential pricing should vary based on how it’s structured – more stringent regulations might be appropriate for plans that are anti-competitive or that don’t promote buildout of infrastructure and a vastly expanded market for broadband Internet services. India still has a billion people, mostly outside the major cities, who essentially have no Internet access.
TRAI ultimately decided to ban zero-rating categorically in ways we think are counterproductive to the very interests the agency wanted to serve. We’re still hopeful that the access debate in India can progress in other ways, including policies that invite developed-world capital to invest.
Regardless of the outcome of these two consultations (there hasn’t yet been a response by the EU on the digital-single-market submissions), R Street’s recognition of the importance of international and foreign forums on Internet policy is here to stay. We look forward to making our voice heard more in the larger world of which we’re all a part.