Arcep speaks - Tribune

« GAFA are ruling our smartphones: let's take back control! »

Opinion of Sebastien Soriano, Chairman of Arcep, for L'OBS (13th February 2018

Smartphones have become the gateway to a controlled environment - controlled not by us but by a handful of large corporations that, each in their own way, dictates the law of the land. They have a name: Apple, Google, Amazon. Regardless of their background, what matters here is the power they wield.

When we choose our phone, we are choosing a daily companion. The smartphone is a fantastic tool that makes things incredibly convenient. Their quality and performance are such that we will probably come to rely on them more and more. And this to such an extent that our relationship with our smartphones is now being viewed in terms of an addiction.

The facts are clear. In 2017, for the first time, Arcep (the French telecoms regulator of which I am the Chair) ascertained that we now use our mobile phones to access the web more than we do a classic computer. By making the smartphone our device of choice, we are choosing our gateway to the digital world. But this entryway is far from being neutral, and the outcomes are anything but virtual.

When we choose our phone, we submit to its operating system (iOS, Android and, earlier, Windows). From there, we head down a potentially very straight path towards a restaurant, brand of detergent or film to go see at the cinema. Because these operating systems are tied to a series of preinstalled apps, and a single app store - and I mean single - operating with algorithms which, as others before me have said "decide for us" (A. Rouvroy). In spite of ourselves, we have made a pact to trade away our freedom for the sake of convenience.

The problem is not that a ranking is made of the top 10 films, or that every available online content, product and service is rated to be able to respond to our queries. The problem is how this hierarchy is established. It is that we have the illusion of choosing what has already been chosen for us, as soon as we choose our phone, and that we do not have the power to control the choices that are made for us, by others. We can only head straight down the hallway.

By the same token, we have no control over the actual criteria that allow those who I have referred to elsewhere as the new feudal lords of the internet to exclude this or that innovation from their app store.

The supreme irony: an app developed by an American university, that was interacting with Arcep over measuring network quality, was blocked by an app store because, and I quote, it "was of no use to users". An unjustified choice imposed on the application's developer, to the detriment of an American university and a French public authority and, more importantly, in the name of users who could have found this application truly useful.

In this instance, the media picked up the story and the app is now available. But what about all those other applications, developers, tomorrow's innovators, big and small, who are blocked without recourse?

The internet opened up a world of permissionless innovation. Today we find ourselves in a world where, on the contrary, our freedom of expression is determined by the too obscure will of a few powerful corporations that have a lock on their markets.

The instrument of our emancipation has become the instrument of our enslavement

This issue extends well beyond smartphones, and right up to the equipment that runs our homes. Not long ago, we found out that Apple's new smart speaker would only give access to its own music service, and no other. More significantly, how many of us would choose a smart speaker of a different brand than our smartphone?

When choosing our phone, we are in fact choosing our smart watch, our smart speaker, a music service and, ultimately, the playlist that will provide the background to our dinner with friends. Tomorrow we will be asking the voice assistant in our car to "put on the news". And so making this a democracy issue, if it is not already.

All of these issues only add to those that already exist, of which we the people are already well aware, such as our near inability to switch from one controlled environment to another, planned obsolescence and phone updates that in fact put them out to pasture. One more straw, and that's it for the camel's back.

So it is vital for each and every user, start-ups, the businesses of tomorrow, for society as a whole, that we take back our power of choice.


Sébastien Soriano

> Opinion on L'OBS website
(French version only)