3 Questions To… Sébastien Soriano, Chairman of Arcep (the French telecom regulator) since 2015. He was BEREC Chair 2017 (the European telecom body) and was BEREC Vice-Chair in 2016 and 2018. Former Chief of Staff of Mrs. Fleur Pellerin, French Minister for SMEs, Innovation and Communication, he published several papers on the challenges of regulators and law makers in the digital era.
You defend network neutrality and internet as a common. According to you, what public policy measures should be implemented to ensure this approach?
Internet has spread as a common good. Its value grows with the contributions of its users. It is The wealth of networks of Yochai Benkler, the end-to-end argument of Lawrence Lessig, the core of Tim Wu's proposal on net neutrality.
This is the principle behind the European Open Internet Regulation from 2015. In France, Arcep oversees its implementation. At the European level, BEREC, the umbrella organization of European regulators, is in charge of ensuring consistency in its implementation all over Europe.
It has been a struggle for many years and in the US, it is not over yet. Though in Europe, the net neutrality principle is now unlikely to be challenged. The European Commission has firmly confirmed it recently. BEREC is in the process of reviewing our guidelines at the European level. We will adjust it for more clarity, especially for 5G, but the rules are futureproof and don’t need to be reshuffled.
"The problem is not so much the Regulation and the behaviors that it aims to prevent. The regulation only applies to Internet pipes, i.e. to Internet service providers. [...] The problem lies elsewhere; not in the pipes, but in the faucets."
The problem is not so much the Regulation and the behaviors that it aims to prevent. The regulation only applies to Internet pipes, i.e. to Internet service providers. However, on this part of the network, we do not see major problems anymore.
The problem lies elsewhere; not in the pipes, but in the faucets.
Platforms play a dominant role in the digital economy. For instance, access to the internet is now predominantly through smartphones, reducing user’s freedom of choice. Hence you claimed to be in favor of a regulation of Big Tech - mentioning Android and iOS notably. How should they be regulated?
The core issue with Big Tech is that they make decisions for us. To a certain extent, they substitute for our free will. If we disagree with what they offer, we have no other choice than leaving them. Thus, we need a counterweight to face the asymmetry of power that exists. The State must act as the guardian of openness by regulating these companies’ behaviour.
Internet is a decentralized environment, in which intelligence must remain at the edge of the network. The State must not replace Big Tech: we need to take their power and redistribute it to the many. Digital sovereignty must not belong to the State, but to individuals, people, innovators, so they can decide themselves of their future.
"The first tool to implement consists in bringing back choice. Choice is the first market discipline."
The first tool to implement consists in bringing back choice. Choice is the first market discipline. Currently, Big Tech behave as they want, simply because they are in monopolistic situations. The only possibility you have is to leave their platforms. We must introduce alternatives; it may require regulation to help innovators wishing to imitate Big Tech because it is very hard to enter the market, especially with such powerful players. It is exactly what we did twenty years ago with the complete opening-up of the telecommunications markets to competition. This philosophy must inhabit us all: we must allow alternatives to arise.
Today, we have various sets of regulation dealing with digital affairs: competition law, Platform to Business Regulation, GDPR, the e-Commerce Directive, the Open Internet Regulation, and so forth. I believe we can go further in order to give people the right to really choose and target the main players to impose specific obligations to them.
As far as net neutrality is concerned, we see that it works fine on network and ISPs (Internet Service Providers) but it does not cover devices (smartphones, voice assistants, connected cars, etc.). Indeed, when using a smartphone, iOS and Android decide which apps you cannot uninstall on your smartphone or you can install via the online App Store available. They are also many features that competitors to Apple and Google cannot use on smartphones. Therefore, we propose that the principle of freedom of choice should also apply to devices.
Many other remedies could be implemented without creating any further burden on firms. Data sharing with public authorities for instance could be key.
Data is at the heart of the contemporary digital transformation. As a consequence, you have implemented a new method of intervention for the French Telecom Authority by developing “data-driven regulation”. Could you explain us what is means? And illustrate it with concrete examples?
As individuals, we complain having too much information, like the general terms and conditions we have to approve. But in fact it means we don’t have the relevant data to make an enlighten choice.
In the telecom sector, we realised that people did not get the data they needed. They felt well informed about prices but notably lacked information on coverage and quality of services. They were not happy with the data we published at a national scale, they want data related to their living or workplaces.
So we decided to change our approach and “unbundle” data. On coverage, we stopped making national podium and started to build a program that would deliver tailor-made data to users.
Also Arcep has embarked on a crowdsourcing approach with a range of third-party players (including for instance with transportation companies at a local and national scales). To build on collective intelligence and crowdsourced testing, Arcep has published a code of conduct to guarantee the reliability of the methodologies used.
One final output is for instance monreseaumobile.fr which provides information on mobile network performance through coverage maps and data and quality of service indicators. The data is naturally accessible to all and can be used for instance by real estate or tourism companies, or any other company.
On fixed markets, we already have maps. So far it is used mainly by operators themselves and municipalities so that they can assess and plan fixed network deployments. But Arcep will be soon releasing a tool giving to each resident the information on technologies available at the address level.
Another very tangible tool we created is J’alerte l’Arcep, an online reporting platform allowing users to flag any issue falling under Arcep jurisdiction. Users share their personal experience, influence market regulation and receive personalised advice by the same token. Such tool could first be extended to issues encountered with devices neutrality for instance.
“Data wants to be free” and it can be for the common good! States should act accordingly.
Interview by Adrien Basdevant, lawyer
• Also read on Coup Data website