Neelie Kroes is becoming one of the open Internet’s most influential supporters.
Kroes is Vice President of the European Commission and is responsible for its “digital agenda.” At the Forum d’Avignon I was at (see here and here) she was just about the only person in a positon of power — economic or regulatory — to suggest that the Internet is actually a good thing for culture, and that we need new ways to think about copyright and distribution. Yesterday she gave a speech at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon in which she called for new thinking to support an open Internet. Most importantly, she explicitly recognized that openness is indeed the property from which the rest of the Net’s value springs.
That a leader of the EC responsible for the “digital agenda” understands this shouldn’t be news. But it is. She even cites Yochai Benkler. Go Neelie!
Her talk begins by nailing its main point:
The best thing about the Internet is that it is open. Indeed it’s built on the idea that every device can talk to every other, using a common, open language. That’s what explains its seemingly endless growth.
Exactly right! Thank you, I’ll be here all week, drive safe, and God bless.
She goes on to explain the many benefits openness brings: “…choice and competition; innovation and opportunity; freedom and democratic accountability.” “Look at what we could do if we opened up our public sectors and put their data online.” She touts open standards. She points to political benefits: “And just look at what openness can do for freedom of speech. The Internet gives a voice to the powerless, and holds the powerful to account.”
Then she turns to the factors that impede openness:
Sometimes the problem is ancient, pre-digital rules that we need to cut back or make more flexible. Other times, openness actually flows from strengthening regulation.
She goes on to say that sometimes it’s about changing a “mindset,” not changing the rules. She says that we need an environment were different models are available and can compete. For example, some people want open discussions and some want moderated forums. We should have all types so people can choose. Likewise, we should have many different business models. People who want to be compensated monetarily for their deserve to be, although many are happy to give away what they’ve created. She says:
Look at the complicating licensing systems for copyrighted material here in Europe. These guarantee that Europeans miss out on great content, they discourage business innovation, and they fail to serve the creative people in whose name they were established.
After nodding to the need for security and privacy, she gets down to the infrastructure level:
…open competition, brought by the EU, has delivered for Europe. It offers consumers better deals and new, tailored services; market players new opportunities; and potential investors legal certainty.
She states her firm commitment to net neutrality. She is fine with having many market choices, including for cheaper plans that provide limited bandwidth, or access designed for specialized preferences. But, she says, there must always be truly open, neutral access, and she points to the BEREC study due in May that should tell us whether in Europe truly open access is being offered to everyone as an option.
Great speech, especially from a person in her position.
So, let me tell you my one concern. Kroes’ idea of openness means that the Net ecosystem should support the option for closed systems for those who want them: It needs to support copyright and it needs to support offerings from access providers that limit access. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you try to engineer an open system to support closed options. So, even the most crazed copyright supporter (let’s just call him, oh I don’t know, “Sarkozy”) is happy to let people give away their own content if they should be nutty enough to want to do so. But to support the “equal and opposite” option of being able to sell content, Sarkozy wants to rejigger the entire system to prevent “piracy.” If you want to offer the closed option with sufficient rigor to prevent all violations, the system would need to become closed. Kroes is certainly not advocating that closure, but the piece I feel is missing from her talk is the recognition that the value of openness surpasses the value that would come from a system engineered to so scrupulously protect IP. We have to accept some degree of risk for IP in order to have the openness that brings us the values Kroes is so eloquent about.
Likewise, I have no problem with access providers offering plans with data caps or that throttle bandwidth (assuming they’re transparent about it); that does not violate my idea of net neutrality. But there are conceivable plans for “specialist user needs” (as Kroes calls them) that would be discriminatory: A plan that gives priority to the delivery of movies (for example) would give those movie bits priority over the non-movie bits that other users of the Net care about. Personally, I think the best protection for the open Internet is structural separation: access providers sell you access — including tiered services — but are not allowed to sell either content or services that discriminate among bits. I don’t know where Kroes stands on this, but again I would have preferred a clear statement about it.
But now I’m just being greedy. Neelie Kroes is an Internet champion at time when we desperately need one.