+Comment Neelie Kroes' stint as the EU's “Commissioner for a Digital Agenda” ends when the Barroso II Commission closes up shop in the autumn. Perhaps the post should be abolished with her departure.
The Dutch economist could have carved out a distinctly European approach, distinct from the Asian autocracies and American Wild West, but failed to do so.
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Instead, Kroes' tenure was marked out by a wide-eyed pandering to fads – in the hope of winning the affections of “civil society” – and a overly welcoming approach to Silicon Valley. The agenda she promoted is more Californian than a Beach Boys karaoke surf board. Good luck finding anything European in that.
Kroes' officials were at it again this week. A year ago they were telling us, in background briefings, that net neutrality legislation was a terrible idea, propagated by the pig ignorant and tinfoil hat lunatics.* On Tuesday, the commissioner’s office was tweeting that Europeans are naked without net neutrality legislation – and claimed it was stepping in to “save us”.
Ryan Heath is Neelie’s representative on Earth
So what’s going on?
Anyone but Neelie
Most of you regular readers will already have figured out that the “Steelie” in the Steelie Neelie nickname is ironic. The European Commissioner for a Digital Agenda (to give her the full title) has never seen a fad, a cause or a campaign from Silicon Valley or its “policy entrepreneurs” (how Google’s front groups like to describe themselves) she didn’t like. Whenever Big Californian Tech required Kroes' office to jump, the response was “how high?” This, combined with staggering naivety, has had some pretty strange consequences.
We've Opened up the British Library! Oh no you haven't
For example, last June Kroes' office trumpeted its open data directive, really a set of tweaks (PDF) to existing guidelines for the disclosure of public sector information. The press release proclaimed:
[EU citizens] will also have access to more exciting and inspirational content since materials in national museums, libraries and archives now fall under the scope of the Directive.
The British Library chuckled when I read this back to them. Copyright materials in museum collections and archives had never been under the scope of the 2003 rules, and these sectors were specifically excluded in the 2013 revision (see PDF above, paragraph 22).
Why did the commission’s office imply a mere directive trumped established copyright statutes and treaties? Why did it pretend the directive applied to areas it specifically excluded? Either Steelie Neelie’s press team couldn’t understand her own directive, or it had deliberately chosen to mislead, to pander, to strike a pose.
Even stranger was the office’s insistence that it would recommend Creative Commons licences for the data sets. Why recommend something designed for cultural works, for copyrightable material, to govern the use of dry tables of data? No one else does.
“They’re the best licence for the job,” insisted Kroes’ proxy, although he couldn’t name a single precedent. I later learned that the commission had been star-struck by Lawrence Lessig – the man who invented Creative Commons, and hardly a disinterested bystander.
California Dreamin’... Why is our commissioner so fond of Silicon Valley?
It’s all very strange. What, then, may explain the commissioner’s puppyish eagerness to please Silicon Valley? Or to patronise? Surely even if the commissioner herself is off frolicking with the unicorns, her technocratic advisors can’t be quite so gullible? And no, I don’t think they are. They’re just desperately eager to be seen to be with it.
There’s a great irony to Kroes' surrender to an internet vision that sees Europeans lose out, yet benefits a tiny elite of American companies. For years, pro-Europeans saw it as a third way – between rampant US capitalism and the kleptocracies of the Asian corporate model. Europe’s way of business would be more collaborative and collegiate. And we’d show them all a thing or two.
This didn’t sound so ridiculous 10 years ago. After all, hadn’t Europe given the world GSM, while Americans paid the price for lack of co-operation with three competing and incompatible digital air interfaces? And who needed to be dependent on the US and its GPS satellite network when Europe was developing its own, Galileo?
Now read through Kroes' pronouncements over the last four years, and permit yourself a hollow laugh. Open data? Worship of tech VCs? Kroes' office had no problem with a VC awarding EU-funded prize money to one of his own companies.
Digital networks as a kind of life force? This was the language of Silicon Valley utopianism, dumbed down into the Ladybird edition. Any distinctiveness that makes Europe a different place was flattened out of existence. The rhetoric made it the clichéd 51st state.
If anything Kroes has made progress more difficult by polarising debate and institutionalising stupidity. (What is euphemistically called “civil society” – meaning NGOs paid by the EU to lobby itself – get more seats at the table).
What Kroes could have done. Maybe
If the commissioner’s seat that Kroes has occupied – the ridiculous “Commissioner for a Digital Agenda” – is to justify its future existence, it needs to do that by establishing a distinctly European vision. I’ll give an example.
Today, the world’s internet video travels over private networks. Over two decades, the public backbone has been run down to the extent it cannot carry video. If you’re a startup, European or otherwise, you have to buy a peering arrangement. Hence the controversy over peering deals, and the high anxiety expressing itself in the net neutrality campaign.
This is fundamentally ignorant of the technical reality. Trying to explain the reality of the internet today to a net neutrality campaigner is like trying to explain the troposphere to a crab; it’s a dimension they are not equipped to comprehend. The metaphorical reality they prefer – “equal rights for data packets” – is so alluring and so comfortable, the reality of private networks and peering is simply shrugged off.
Yet there is scope for positive, progressive policy. The net neutrality campaign generates so much controversy not because anyone is against “unfairness”, but because in the absence of a public network to regulate, it goes after private arrangements. And it goes after them at what is a very early stage in the internet’s development. In the words of one networking expert, Martin Geddes, this is like “legislating in MSDOS in 1983”: it attempts to control the emergent properties of the network market.
In reality, because there is no “public” internet today, the activism is regulating the private internet.
Yet what if this wasn’t the case? What if the public internet backbone had not been allowed to degrade over two decades, to the point it cannot carry audio and video at scale? What if regulators had demanded that Big Telco pay a tiny per cent of its revenue into maintaining capacity?
The principle of externalities is well established – telcos raising a levy for rural access, for example. It would result in a much more level playing field. Private operators should be free to take risks and conduct experiments. For more on this fascinating idea, that Big Telco should pay a small fee to maintain the public backbone, see here.
This would have had more of a lasting effect than any of the posturing from Kroes Central about “protecting” European broadband users. But perhaps gestures are all that matters, at the end of the day.
For billions of global net users, European digital policy is encapsulated in one grand and spectacularly useless gesture: the mandatory cookie popup. That’s how an internet user in Ulan Bator or Uruguay knows the site is European. This can’t be blamed on Kroes, who was still the Competition Commissioner when the privacy directive was passed in 2009. But if you want a symbol of European digital policy, there you are. ®
*There is of course a large Venn diagram union of the two – the paranoid and the ignorant – and net neutrality was created for them. Only now is it dawning on some of the net neutrality campaigners – one or two, anyway - that there are genuine competition issues on today’s internet, but just not the ones they envisaged. They imagined Big Telco would use its market power in distribution to muscle out OTT Internet Video. Instead, Big OTT Internet video uses its money to block Little OTT Internet video. Just as we predicted four years ago.