Last week in Berlin, the stakeholders of the net met at the annual United Nations Internet Governance Forum to discuss the problems that affect the Internet, ranging from hate speech to the concentration of online services in the hands of a few private companies. At Open-Xchange, together with our friends at OpenForum Europe, we decided to participate and promote the most powerful antidote to many of these problems: the “required openness” of the Internet.
We believe that the power of the Internet stays in its openness, in how it enables the ability of people to cooperate (through our beloved open-source software and open standards, for example) and to become active producers of content, technology, and innovation. However, the lack of rules against the establishment of proprietary “walled gardens” has allowed a few big companies to build immense dominant positions that are now endangering the privacy and freedom of all users and stifling the opportunities for the rest of the world.
We think that this is especially important for Europe. Rather than complaining about the lack of a “European Google”, policymakers should realize that the European economy works differently, through the horizontal cooperation of smaller players spread throughout 28 different countries, economies and languages. Open source, open standards, and interoperability are the enablers of this cooperation, allowing many European companies to share their user bases and reach the critical mass to succeed.
This is however impossible if users are captured by a dominant player within a closed silo. For example, even today someone could develop a much better instant messaging application than the existing ones; however, it would still fail, because all the users are already on Whatsapp, or Skype, or others, and will not be reachable through a new application. But if new applications were allowed to exchange messages with the existing ones, this barrier to innovation would be eliminated. This will only happen if the dominant platforms are required by law to open up, otherwise, they will never do so.
This is the approach that we presented during our session in Berlin, aptly named “Leaving Hotel California: Promoting alternatives to the Internet giants”. We were met with a full room, a sign that we are not alone in feeling this as a pressing issue for the future of the Internet. After a brief introduction by Astor Nummelin Carlberg, OpenForum Europe’s Policy Director, and Vittorio Bertola, Open-Xchange’s Head of Policy & Innovation, the audience started to interact and provide experiences, opinions, and proposals - the discussion went on for almost two hours. Almost everyone agreed that some regulatory intervention is necessary and that we need to discuss exactly how it could look like.
We are considering options for the follow-up, including the establishment of a cross-stakeholder working group of like-minded people that could design a practical proposal. The new European Commission openly stated that some form of regulation of online digital services is on their agenda, and we would like to propose interoperability as one of the items in it. We think this could be an important step towards more choice and privacy for the users and more opportunities for Europe in this space.