Leaving hotel California: Promoting alternatives to the internet giants

25 Nov 2019 13:05h - 15:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

The majority of mainstream services and platforms today are built on closed standards, forcing end users to have an account for each one of them. This is beneficial for businesses that monetise on the extensive amounts of accounts, but not for the consumers. The session discussed how to reinstate the principles of Internet openness and interoperability. It was agreed that this would allow the Internet to grow, and to challenge the technology monopolies we have today.

Mr Vittorio Bertola (Head of Policy and Innovation, Open-Xchange) opened with the question of how to agree on the type of interoperability we should demand from companies. One common strategy of companies is to be open in the beginning when building their user base, and then to close down the service once they get a critical mass. Should we focus on proper interoperability or data portability, since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) allows users to transfer their data among services? A potential option is to focus on decentralised private and interoperable data storage and to create an economic incentive for companies to share data in an open interoperable model. It was mentioned that academia proposed not to have an across the board interoperability requirement. There could be a more nuanced approach where large platforms work with the smaller ones, and not against them.

Discussions with the audience emphasised that we should go beyond talking about open standards and remember the human rights implications of technology created by non-diverse teams, which are not necessarily aware of the needs of marginalised groups. We need to ask what type of teams are building the services, if we want to have proper impact on society. Interoperability has a technical and a non-technical component. Technical development should include more diverse teams, and understand different perspectives on usability by asking the designers to join the discussion. It was agreed that regulatory tools are not enough on their own, but are a great start as they can open the discussion with mainstream platforms before going deeper into usability issues. Usability should include a varied set of accessibility issues too. Currently, most of the open source software does not perform well on the user experience scale, even if this is necessary for reaching broader acceptance.

The European model relies upon open standards, but the process of regulation revealed the difficulties of dealing with many voices like the 28 member states. At the same time, the United States and China have big companies that Europe does not necessarily want to have. More interoperability could promote the innovation sector in Europe, but its political system, less capital, and a different culture demand different priorities. So how can Europe survive economically in the clash between the American and the Chinese models? The diversity of languages and scripts is also a challenge for European interoperability.

When discussing interoperability, it is important to distinguish between technical solutions and data portability, especially when we consider the amount of data coming from four billion users. The holy trinity of promoting openness, includes open source implemented through open standards together with open data.

The key takeaways include focusing on the end-user’s perspective when defining interoperability, learning from the telecommunications industry’s open standards, and accepting that a full consensus of all stakeholders is not necessary to start making interoperability viable and useful. A change in the advertisement-based model where personal data is used for profit would also contribute to changing incentives in the business sector. The multistakeholder approach would struggle with differentiating between users and consumers, since users in Europe are represented through the European Consumer Organisation which is funded by the European Commission. Still, there should be a middle co-regulation solution for going forward, one between self-regulation and regulation. A high-level principle for dominant platforms, and another entity which will define and interpret what this means for each feature and service, specifically for different actors.

By Jana Misic