Tag: Günther Oettinger

Net Neutrality in the EU – A work still in progress

Which neutrality do you prefer?

Which neutrality do you prefer? 1)Copyright by EFF-Graphics under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Aiming to allow everyone to communicate with anybody globally, the net neutrality principle establishes that all content providers should have equal access on networks. In this context, it enables people to access and impart information and it provides entrepreneurs with the proper platform to invest and develop new businesses models. Therefore, non-discrimination commitments are required from Internet Services Providers regarding users, contents, devices or communications.

But it is easier said than done… In fact, it appears that net neutrality is not a straight forward principle, thus allowing different interpretations. Perhaps the very own nature of the concept can – at least partially – explain the difficulty of the institutional and political debates surrounding the legislative reforms in the telecommunications sector both in the EU and in the USA.

On the EU side, the negotiations regarding the draft regulation laying down measures concerning the European single market for electronic communications and to achieve a Connected Continent (the TSM proposal) have been quite tumultuous.

As you might well remember, it all began with the text proposed by the European Commission, in 2013, which was claimed to fully implement the principle of net neutrality, while it actually stripped it of all real meaning. In fact, it foresaw an almost unlimited right of Internet Services Providers (hereafter ISPs) to manage Internet traffic.

Afterwards, there were the debates within the European Parliament, which first reading ended successfully last April, resulting in a clear and strict interpretation of the net neutrality principle and a proper framework for ‘specialised services’. Indeed, according to the text, telecommunications operators would be allowed to develop access offers with an optimised quality of service for specific applications, which wouldn’t be able to not run properly on the so-called ‘best-effort Internet’.2)A Best Effort Internet refers to the model of the Internet that does not differentiate between ‘levels’ of content providers. All web authors, large and small, enjoy the same ability to produce content or services that can, via the Internet reach an audience / customer base.

Currently, the debates are being held within the Council of the European Union which, along the European Parliament, is the EU co-legislator. However, the meeting of the EU Member States’ telecommunications ministers, held in Luxembourg, past June, clearly demonstrated the existing major divisions among Member States.

Considering the most recent proposal of the Italian Presidency (see here and here), it was quite evident that Member States were heading to a looser and weaker approach to net neutrality rules. The proposal consisted in a ‘principles-based approach’ in order not to inhibit innovation and to avoid having an obsolete regulation in the future.

However, the proposal did not address the principle of net neutrality but rather its opposite, as it set principles to traffic management:

Clear principles for traffic management in general, as well as the obligation to maintain sufficient network capacity for the internet access service regardless of other services also delivered over the same access.

In fact, the very important definitions of net neutrality and specialised services were not included in the text.

According to the document of the Italian Presidency, “instead of a definition of net neutrality there could be a reference to the objective of net neutrality, e.g. in an explanatory recital, which would resolve the concerns that the definition might be at variance with the specific provisions.” However, clear provisions are required in order to ensure its full enforcement.

Specialised services, which refer to the types of content that operators could prioritise over others, despite not being regulated, were not prohibited. Thus said, if they were not foreseen in the text, the principle of non-discrimination should at least have been clearly stated instead. It was not the case.

In its place, it was foreseen that ISPs will be able to apply traffic management measures as long as they were transparent, proportionate and not anti-competitive. Measures “that block, slow down, alter, degrade or discriminate against specific content, applications or services, or specific classes thereof” could be applied under certain circumstances, such as to “prevent the transmission of unsolicited communications”; to prevent “temporary congestion control”; or to meet their “obligations under a contract with an end-user to deliver a service requiring a specific level of quality to that end-user”.

Moreover, the proposal did not contain any reference to the obligation of Member States regarding the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression, which must be ensured at both the end-user and the content provider.

Thus said, this text raised some confusions and concerns. To start with, regarding unsolicited communications, it must be noted that an e-mail service is not an internet access service. Moreover, it should have been clarified that the prevention of temporary congestion should be an exception and not be established ‘by default’. Furthermore, the concept of a “contract with an end-user to deliver a service requiring a specific level of quality to that end-use” is not fully compatible with the ‘best effort’ Internet concept.

Last but not the least; the text lacked a clear non-discrimination principle for Internet access providers. For instance, the text did not refer the discrimination based on pricing which would lead to a result where big telecommunications companies would be able to pay for preferential treatment for their services or to have their services accessible for free, while others, with less financial capacity, would end up being excluded due to throttling of their services.

As a result, ISPs would turn themselves into the gatekeepers of a market of customers which would only be accessible for those companies willing to pay accordingly. In fact, this is a crucial point because consumers will invariably prefer the websites or services made available for free.

The direct result of such a text was that telecoms operators would be able to discriminate between different users, their communications or the content accessed. Internet access providers, and not users, would therefore decide what applications and content could be freely used.

In an unfortunate coincidence, Günther Oettinger, the already well-know Digital Commissioner for its ‘inside the box’ way of thinking, published his first post on his blog, arguing that the full coverage of internet access in rural zones would be finally possible if the telecommunications operators would be allowed “to reap the benefit of their investments”.

Moreover, a letter sent from Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans to the other commissioners is being interpreted as suggesting that the European Commission might change direction regarding its initial proposal.

In this context, the main challenge is to conciliate the open internet as a instrument for the democratic expression, which promotes informed citizenship and plurality of opinions, with the network operators own interests in managing their networks, namely through specialized services. ISPs should be entitled to manage traffic – namely offering customers internet access packages with different speeds and volumes – but the traffic should neither be prioritized nor discriminated based on the content, services, applications, or devices used.

More recently, the Italian Presidency appears to have distanced itself from its own proposals, alleging that

none of the compromise drafts, which had been developed at a technical level, has gathered enough consensus. Such drafts (…) are significantly different from the positions of the single Member States, including Italy, that has always chosen to act as a neutral mediator under the Presidency rather than imposing its own point of view.

This is just the consequence of the strong divergences which oppose EU Member States, which is expected to be resolved at a political level.

In this context, the recent resolution adopted by the European Parliament does not come as a surprise as it stresses that

all internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, irrespective of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.

In these dark times for net neutrality, one can only hope for the right balance between net neutrality and reasonable traffic management to be found.

And as Christmas is getting closer, one can also wish for the EU and the USA to ultimately adopt compatible rules on guaranteeing an open internet. As announced recently, Barack Obama is taking strong positions in favour of Net Neutrality and is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt rules to prevent ISPs from blocking and slowing down content.

References   [ + ]

1. Copyright by EFF-Graphics under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
2. A Best Effort Internet refers to the model of the Internet that does not differentiate between ‘levels’ of content providers. All web authors, large and small, enjoy the same ability to produce content or services that can, via the Internet reach an audience / customer base.

The ‘EU Google Tax’ – A very unpromising work in progress?

Let's tax everything.

Let’s tax Googleverything.

Once upon a time or, more precisely, about four years ago, a group of German newspaper publishers filed several antitrust complaints due to the use, in Google news service and search results, of article snippets from their publications.

One would think that the additional free traffic directed by Google, associated to this inclusion of short snippets from their stories, would actually be beneficial for publishers, generating more audience, making their content more valuable, and enabling them to sell more advertising.

It might be quite an accurate consideration but, as it seems, completely irrelevant because the main issue at stake was apparently reduced to the argument that Google was making money out of it:

Hans-Joachim Fuhrmann, a spokesman for the German Newspaper Publishers Association, said the Web sites of all German newspapers and magazines together made 100 million euros, or $143 million, in ad revenue, while Google generated 1.2 billion euros from search advertising in Germany. “Google says it brings us traffic, but the problem is that Google earns billions, and we earn nothing,” Mr. Fuhrmann said.

Although many, in fact, failed to understand how short excerpts shown as part of search results can be detrimental to newspapers publishers, last year, the German Parliament actually approved a new kind of copyright to protect online journalism and, consequently, subjected the presentation of news snippets and linking to the source to a licensing fee.

The law, better known as “ancillary copyright for press publishers” or “Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger”, establishes that publishers have the exclusive right to commercialize their products or parts thereof. The law is intended to be particularly applicable to situations where companies commercially use third party content.

Therefore, a commercial aggregator or a search engine will not be able to aggregate quotations and links of journalistic articles unless they have received previous and explicit authorization. However, as this is intended to be a proportionate solution (?), the use of single words or very small text excerpts is allowed.

The main goal to be achieved is to enable publishers to receive an appropriate contribution for their content being promoted, for free, elsewhere than their websites.

Anyway, recently, the very same German publishers filed an antitrust complaint with the German Federal Cartel Office. Allegedly, due to Google’s dominance on the search engine German market, publishers were forced to agree to let Google use the snippets and links for free.

In parallel, based on the abovementioned German law, they filed as well a copyright request of compensation with the Copyright Arbitration Board of the German Patent and Trade Mark Office, demanding Google to pay them 11% of its gross worldwide revenue on any search that results in Google showing a snippet of their content.

Well, this could have been just like any regular competition or copyright case. Except, for its ludicrous details, it was not.

To start with, no advertising is displayed in the Google News service. Moreover, publishers do not have to be on Google at all. But, despite being able to ‘opt-out’, without any further consequences, the same publishers didn’t remove themselves from Google’s search. Indeed, Google has already ensured that publishers opting out of Google News won’t have their content removed from its search results. In addition, it has been demonstrated that publishers actually use every tool put at their disposal by Google, including Google Webmaster Tools and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques, in order to achieve a better ranking position in search results.

This all saga is not so vaguely reminiscent of a Belgian comic case, from 2006, where, following the complaint of a group of publishers, alleging that Google was infringing on their copyrights by linking to their newspaper articles, Google removed the links referring to content of those newspapers. However, due to the (expected) traffic drop which ensued, those publishers asked to be referenced again on the search engine results. (For more details, see here and here)

As the story seems to repeat itself, the abovementioned antitrust complaint was ultimately rejected as inconclusive, no sufficient grounds having been found to justify an investigation.

In addition, Google decided to remove existent snippets and not to use any further news snippets referring to publications of those publishers. One would expect that the publishers would be satisfied with this initiative but, instead, they dramatically qualified it as “blackmail.”

Confused? Don’t worry. Apparently, this does not have to make any sense at all… And it gets worse!

Not having news snippets referring to their websites showing on Google News obviously led those publishers to a commercial disadvantage comparing to other news websites, which snippets continued appearing in the search results. In this context, and against all odds, the same old group of publishers announced the intention to grant Google a free license to use those kind of excerpts.

This has lead us to an interesting outcome, indeed.

So we now have a German law which allows publishers to collect license fees from news aggregators and search engines which use snippets of their content.

This law was primarily intended to address the specific concerns of a group of German publishers regarding Google market power and to regulate the particular situation of the snippets displayed on Google News.

But it turns out that, after all, Google will benefit from a preferential treatment precisely due to its dominant position in the EU market.

One would innocently expect that Member States could learn from each other mistakes…

Well, against our best expectations, that it is not the case. Spain has just approved a new copyright law, which is polemic at many levels, namely because it has created a brand new ‘inalienable right’ (derecho irrenunciable) for news publishers.

In practice, it means that publishers won’t be able to refuse the use of “non-significant fragments of their articles” by third parties. However, it creates a compulsory license to compensate them for that use, which means that copyrights holders can’t decide to allow the use of content for free and, therefore, completely overrides any concept of fair use, like Creative Commons-type of licenses.

Thus said, one optimistic would still hope that the same mistake wouldn’t be emulated at the EU level.

However, when Günther Oettinger, the next Digital Economy and Society EU Commissioner – considering his previous demonstration of obliviousness regarding Internet in general – takes a stance on the issue, one cannot help to start worrying.

Indeed, as reported by Julia Red (the Pirate Party MEP), Oettinger recent statements were as follows:

When Google is taking intellectual works from within the EU and using them, then the EU has to protect those works and demand a tax from Google.

I am really not sure that a similar tax is the way forward for the EU copyright reform in the digital age we are living in. The reform shouldn’t be aimed to target companies according to their position on the EU market.

To begin with, I am afraid that the whole aim of copyright laws – produce incentive to creativeness – is somehow going amiss and that they will end up being used to protect businesses that refuse or are just unable to adapt their strategies to the fast-changing technological reality.

It is always very frustrating for any legal practitioner to deal with laws that are no longer suitable for the reality they are intended to be applicable to. But it is even more exasperating to deal with laws that were never appropriate to the situation which is intended to be regulated. To legislate in the new era with an old mindset is definitely not the way to go forward.

Moreover, I strongly believe that an extension of the existent copyright laws, namely regarding links, is not compatible with the spirit of openness that characterizes the Web and is mostly a reflection of the interest of publishers who have failed to achieve successful business models on the Internet. Taxing links might most likely lead to the smashing of the very basic premise of the Web.

Furthermore, I am worried that this might be the beginning of the end of freedom and access to unlimited information that characterizes the Internet as we know it and that it will stifle innovation brought by successful entrepreneurship.

Last but not the least, all my criticism aside, considering the German example, how ironic would it be that, in the midst of all the concerns surrounding the dominant position of Google in the EU market, and in all the efforts deployed to fracture its market power, its dominant position would end up being strengthened?

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Stupidest of Them All?

Half serious Günther Oettinger.

Half serious Günther Oettinger.

So, the European Parliament has begun its hearings in order to evaluate the Commissioners designated by the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker. But the hearings have shown quite a few surprises…

After Cecilia Malmström, it was up to Günther Oettinger, appointed to be the commissioner responsible for ‘digital economy and society’, to be in the spotlight last Monday. This time, however, it was not due to some compromising correspondence, but to some highly questionable answers.

The MEPs’ questions focused on issues such as roaming and net neutrality, data protection, mass surveillance, the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling, and copyright law. On the overall, Oettinger was vague and superficial and mainly dodged the questions, namely regarding net neutrality. However, infrastructure (whatever this is supposed to mean) appeared to be one of its main priorities, as it came up in almost every statement.

But what  this hearing will always be remembered for is by how he referred to the recent data breach involving several  female celebrities, which I have previously addressed here.

According to Oettinger, it would not be his role as a commissioner to protect celebrities who have taken under-dressed pictures of themselves, and his precise words were as follows:

We should say: We can mitigate or even eliminate some risks. But like with any technology, you can’t exclude all risks. I’ll give an example. This may be a little, um… semi-serious. The fact that recently there have been an increasing number of public lamentations about nude photos of celebrities who took selfies – I just can’t believe it! If someone is dumb enough to as a celebrity take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can’t expect us to protect them. I mean, stupidity is something you can not – or only partly – save people from.

In conclusion, Oettinger obviously  considered (half-seriously?? is this remotely funny in any sense?) that the private photos that female celebrities took of themselves would be a good example for whichever point he wanted to make concerning the limitations of technological security.

Of course it didn’t help at all that he might seem oblivious to the outlines of the case, as to the fact that the pictures have not been put online by the victims themselves, but were, instead,stored in private cloud accounts belonging to the celebrities, accessed by third-parties following a hacking attack and then published against their authorisation. Quite a relevant little detail… And quite astonishing that  the upcoming head of EU digital policy would fail to distinguish privately accessed cloud services and the open Internet.

No wonder that Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht considered that, by putting Oettinger in charge of the digital economy, Juncker has committed a fatal mistake:

Oettinger does not even use social media, for example. He barely communicates publicly with people on the internet. Instead, he is a man of classical media. As regional prime minister and as energy commissioner he devoted himself to traditional issue areas. This will be an enormous challenge for him.

Currently, many – myself included – wonder if he is a suitable candidate for the intended position. The fact that data protection will very likely become the direct responsibility of designated justice, consumers and gender equality commissioner Vera Jourová is therefore a relief.

Anyway, in a dubious harmony with the opinion of a vast amount of internet users, the designated commissioner believes that the victims – all women, let’s not forget – are the major culprits for their own privacy’s violation. As any other good moralist would easily point out, being celebrities they should have known better than to take pictures intended to remain private or only to be shared with whoever they wanted. How dared they?

Unfortunately, Oettinger completely failed to consider the big picture of the incident: online security in general. He therefore missed the ugly truth that is: anybody can be a target of hacking attacks for the most diversified purposes, with more or less serious and far-reaching consequences. If, instead of private pictures, the ‘celebgate’ would have referred to intellectual property or credit cards information theft, would it have been so light-heartedly approached? One should not be so naïve as to think that this is only about pictures or videos. More sensitive data is at stake.

As understandable as it can be that, being Oettinger the previous commissioner for energy, he might feel more comfortable among gas and oil pipes,  his comments raised a strong and welcomed criticism within the public opinion. One particular MEP, Julia Reda, who represents the Pirate Party, elaborated better than I could have on all the issues brought up by these foolish comments.

But besides being strange, at the very least, that a likely to be commissioner (after all, the European Commission is the guardian of the treaties) would, in front of the MEPs (being the European Parliament the only European institution which directly represents the voice of the 500 million EU citizens), focus on the fact that the pictures were taken in the first place, it is not only disappointing but also mainly worrying.

It is indeed deeply dramatic that nowadays, in the European Union, and at this high level, one can still so blatantly find the very same reflections of the sexism and victim blaming that have been manifested online when the news of the hacking came out. It is all very wrong when a commissioner not only agrees with those moralists but feels at ease to joke about it publicly. Where are we heading to? How ironic would it be that, among all the challenges brought by the technological progress, we would somehow recede to the early stages of discussions concerning  equal rights and gender discrimination but this time – because Oettinger is a man of his time and the access to the right to vote is so last century! -within the upcoming era of Internet of Things.

Furthermore, it is quite distressful that, in regards to the data security breaches news that make, almost everyday, the headlines of worldwide newspapers, the really important point to be made – the raising of awareness regarding the risks associated to technology and the need for a more secure data storage systems, namely cloud-based  – was just overshadowed by such misogynist  remarks…

Considering all this,  Oettinger’s own words are fairly applicable:

Stupidity is something you can not – or only partly – save people from.

 

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