The other day, I came across a quote from Wiktoria Wójcik, the cofounder of InStreamly, a Polish startup: “I don't know what will happen. I feel like I have no power over it. I have no real say in this discussion. And the biggest issue is that it's so surprising because nobody's even talking about it”. She was referring to the "fair share" conversation in Europe and it made me cringe.
I have been following this debate in Europe since it started a year ago and my views have also been clear. But, the despair I read in Wiktoria’s statement hit me. No European citizen should feel this helpless. The European institutions were created to listen to the people of Europe; their entire existence is based on that very responsibility.
Yet, here we are. Wictoria is a member of a group of Polish startup companies; they are the last group to voice their concerns about the European Commission’s proposal on network fees. (The group is partly funded by Google and Microsoft according to their transparency register.) Who ever funds them, the fact is that Europe needs a robust startup ecosystem to become globally competitive and relevant; Europe should be fostering a predictable environment for startups, not one that causes despair. Regulation is necessary but regulation for the sake of regulation is unpredictable.
The European Commission’s apathy to such concerns has been nothing short of frustrating. This whole thing is nothing more than the result of effective lobbying. (In this moment, you will rightly point out that everybody lobbies; big tech does it; big telcos do it; everyone is doing it.) But, let’s make something clear about this specific situation: if there is one issue where lobbying can really screw the global Internet, this is it!
I fully appreciate that, when we hear such grandiose statements about the Internet, most of us think they are exaggerations. Frankly, most of them are; but, not this one. If you allow access networks even more power than they currently have, if you recognize the right of termination monopoly over the way content is delivered to users, if you unnecessarily intervene in the functioning arrangements on how networks interconnect, then you are effectively changing the topology of the Internet. You are essentially saying that there is a small number of networks that is more important than all the others networks. You are granting these networks the keys of the Internet; and, you tell them that from now on they get to decide on everything from innovation to user experience. This is not the Internet. This is the telecoms network reimagined.
The question then is what will the Commission do? Next Friday the public comment period ends and the comments will be in. The Commission has decided to outsource their analysis and synthesis to an external consultancy firm, but it remains unknown which firm has been awarded the tender. Soon though, we will find out where European stakeholders stand on this idea of a “fair share”.
Equally interesting will be the European Commission’s next move after the votes are in. If the consensus is that this whole policy is unnecessary, the Commission will have a hard time explaining its unedifying support to the EU big telcos. If the comments end up somehow being in favor of the proposal, the Commission will have the extremely hard task of managing the considerable resistance by European stakeholders. In both cases, because of the way the Commission treated this issue this past year, it has backed itself to a corner.
The same seems to be happening with the EU big telcos, given how half-baked their proposal is. For the past year, telcos have provided no information about things like how they envision this financial relationship to be established, for how long, under what criteria, accountability provisions, checks and balances, etc. The proposal was limited to just: we are only interested in direct payments. If things don't turn out the way they hope, it will require a lot of trust building with a wide range of stakeholders. This will not be easy.
The bottom line is that we are all losers no matter how things turn out. This whole process has created and fostered an antagonistic environment, while the Internet, and its infrastructure, are all about collaboration. Now that I think about it, despair might be more fitting to describe this whole process.