Building a sustainable path towards planetary systems of knowledge

Deploying a toolkit of neutrality, portability and interoperability policies

We need an information ecosystem that is at least as networked as the natural ecosystems that are collapsing. We should start by deploying a combination of neutrality, portability and interoperability policies.

By Juan Ortiz Freuler and Stefano Quintarelli*

Planetary systems of knowledge, as rendered by Midjourney AI

Over two years in, the pandemic continues to ravage economies across the globe. However, one sector seems to have emerged even stronger: The US’ tech giants saw data usage increase 18%, with data usage for gaming increasing up to 75% . So called FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — although now being Meta, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet) saw their combined yearly profits growing from around $175 billion to almost $300 billion during the same period.

This explosive growth might have slowed down over the past months, in particular as fears of recession grow. However, the local and global regulatory and political scrutiny triggered by the explosive growth continues their course.

On the one hand, the tech sector was facing a generalized tech-lash in its home turf: People in Europe and the US feel many of these companies are untrustworthy. On the other hand, a number of countries are clamping down on the free flow of data. Whether this takes the shape of data localization rules, app blockages, firewalls, shutdowns, it is clear that many people in governments and companies across the world are not only preparing for, but actively working towards, a more fragmented information ecosystem. The global internet governance system that allowed multinational companies to operate globally without having to deal with too many local hurdles is starting to crack.

These tensions are now inescapable. The question is how will this generation of global leaders leverage and balance the tensions to elicit change. We believe the outcome will ultimately depend on which social imaginaries or lenses become most prominent when we discuss what the internet is. The key lenses currently at play seem to be three: surveillance, marketplace and knowledge.

If the surveillance lens becomes most prominent–be it the surveillance capitalism promoted by corporations or the surveillance promoted by governments to achieve internal or foreign policy goals–then it is most likely going to be shut down more often than it would be economically desirable.

If the lens that presents the internet as platform for trading in digital services and goods becomes dominant, then we are likely going to see a great deal of fragmentation, as countries try to set up their own digital ports and navies to ensure they get a fair portion of the market, and much knowledge is likely going to be lost in the process.

However, if the primary lens through which we see the internet is that of a network for knowledge sharing, as originally conceived, then the interests of all nations and regulators could become a bit more aligned. However, it is important to underline that it is not just a matter of conceptualizing the internet in this way. We need to deploy concrete policies for the internet to start operating more like a network of knowledge. This is not just a matter of taste but an urgent and necessary response to the pace at which the interconnected ecosystems of our planet are collapsing. We need our information ecosystem to be at least as networked as the natural ecosystems at risk. In short, we will need a big realignment.

Our current information ecosystem, the internet, needs some weeding before we can do some sowing. To this end, we argue that at the disposal of policy-makers and regulators around the world are three key tools that can help achieve these goals: The principles of neutrality, portability, and interoperability. To be effective, legislators and regulators need to deploy these principles not as standalone policies, but as part of an integrated approach. An approach that should be purposefully aimed at realigning our networks with knowledge sharing and creation.

The three tools: A radiography

NEUTRALITY: A barricade against abusive gate-keeping.

By neutrality we mean that, as a rule, companies should not be allowed to exercise gatekeeping in a way that unduly influences the traffic patterns circulating through them. Perhaps the most known example are the rules developed to protect network neutrality. These rules aim to ensure that internet service providers, like cable companies or telcos, do not discriminate between different online services and applications, not interfering with users’ choices. These anti-discrimination rules are often described as a ban on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization programs, and have been enshrined into law by many governments over the past decade. The rules seek to ensure a levelled playing field and reassurance that gatekeepers won’t get to pick winners in adjacent markets. Without net neutrality protections these forces can undermine the ecosystem. Like the meandering river that erodes its own walls at every turn, vertical integration can turn huge areas of the web into oxbow lakes: Places that are de-linked, inaccessible, unavailable, and eventually stale, like the waters of ox-bow lakes. Net neutrality protections operate as protections towards avoiding this.

Fig. 1 Sketch by authors highlighting key layer at which net neutrality plays a key role in ensuring technological diversity and reducing lock-in

The first challenge in the area of net neutrality is to define what constitutes reasonable grounds for exceptional traffic management by these gatekeepers, and this will in turn trigger a public conversation regarding the wide array of values and interests at stake and how to balance them.

The second challenge is to expand the neutrality principle in order to provide clear guidance beyond the network layer. For example, we believe the principle of neutrality could also inform how we regulate devices (i.e. device neutrality: mobile operating systems and app stores), structurally limiting the possibility of discriminating and excluding behaviors at the app-sourcing level.

Neutrality principles observe what happens as traffic moves across the network and into our devices. However, the openness achieved through the enshrinement of such neutrality principles could still be thwarted by locking-in users of the services and technologies at the edges of the network. That is where the principles of portability and interoperability come in to complement and protect neutrality.

PORTABILITY: A fail safe

Portability refers to the ability to transfer something (data, a service, contacts) from one provider onto another. Portability is focused on ensuring one can replace and alternate between systems that perform very similar or competing services. An easy reference point might be the number portability in the cell phones. Phone number portability rules helped ensure people would not be anchored to their current telco provider just out of fear that their contacts would no longer know where to reach them.

Fig. 2 Sketch by authors highlighting key layer at which portability plays a key role in reducing lock-in

Tha portability principle is, for example, enshrined in the EU’s data protection regulation (GDPR). Over the past couple of years we have seen major developments, with projects like big tech’s Data Transfer Project, which aims at enabling people to download their data from one big platform, and subsequently upload it to another, and others like Solid, aiming to make the process of moving data across apps seamless. The debate regarding control over data sheds light on our intuition that people should be able to unlock their data from its current corporate silos through open standards, except when mandated by law.

Portability protections improve the resilience of the ecosystem by favoring technological diversity. To understand the relevance of diversity, let’s take an example from nature: vines and wine. In the 1800s European wine industry almost collapsed due to a plague of philoxera, an insect that was ravaging the roots of the European vines. After exploring cruel and magical defenses like burying live frogs next to the roots, they came to the solution: grafting. By combining their old vines with the roots from vines of the American continent, which were organically resistant to the philoxera, they could save their winemaking paradise from complete collapse.

Our systems of information management are not too different. They are always at risk. Nature, in our vines example, could be construed as protecting genetic information by creating variety on the one hand, and interoperability on the other. The combination of multiple forks and the ability to retrace and rebranch, operates as a fail-safe.

To underline the limitations of relying on portability alone, we will go back to the example of mobile phones. Here’s a true story. A mobile operator obtained licenses to operate in a new country. To avoid legal consequences, let’s call this company NuPhone. Shortly after starting its operations, NuPhone obtained its first set of phone numbers through the regulator and started offering its services. They also ensured the portability provisions discussed in the previous section were in place, so people could switch from the incumbent OldPhone monopoly to NuPhone, taking their phone numbers with them. However, and here’s where portability falls short, NuPhone was not interoperable with OldPhone. So even though people could take the numbers of their contacts list from OldPhone to NuPhone, they would discover that they couldn’t actually talk to OldPhone customers any more! The consequence was obvious: nobody would switch. NuPhone closed shop. The diversity of networks and available devices got reduced. The resilience of the overarching system of information was damaged. If anything were to happen to OldPhone’s networks, the damage would be massive.

This is not a theoretical claim: The lack of diversity is precisely what made the Log4j vulnerability so disastrous. A relatively small piece of software used to track activities on a broad range of computer systems led to millions of people losing data, and billions of dollars in losses. The complete fallout will take years to assess.

Thus, neutrality and portability are key, but in order to ensure resilient information systems, interoperability is essential.

INTEROPERABILITY: The overflows and escape tunnels

Interoperability refers to a set of inter-company agreements that enable different systems to engage with each other effectively and efficiently. These agreements take place at the technical design level or even the shape of pricing agreements towards sharing infrastructure. Interoperability is key in allowing systems to talk to each other. Standards aimed at ensuring seamless interoperability are what allow you to call anyone over the phone without having to know what phone brand or mobile operator the receiver operates over. Or sending an email without caring who provides services to the recipient.

Interoperability was also baked into much of the design of the internet and the web. You could build a website and expect that anyone using any browser would be able to see its contents, as long as you respected the web standards. This autonomy boosted trust and adoption.

Interoperability has been the key towards enabling information flows. However, as big players get bigger, they start to lose interest in allowing their systems to talk to smaller ones.

Big players start to exercise gatekeeping power in ways that are detrimental to interoperability.

We see this taking place with social media building walls around their space, like Facebook limiting Twitter’s Vine functionalities on its platform, Apple allowing its own services access location data but barring competitors like Tile from doing so, and Google requiring people use Chrome to enable offline editing of Google Docs.

We need regulators across the planet to be given the necessary powers to be able to actively and effectively challenge these practices. Artificial barriers to interoperability soon lead to systems that become non-interoperable, and all too often the discourse of innovation leveraged is for purely predatory reasons.

Often the process of innovation is not aimed at offering a better or cheaper service to the public but rather to undermine competitors. Changing interoperability schemas (too) frequently, limiting the available documentation for their correct implementation, requiring new types of data, and inducing temporary alterations or bottlenecks in interfaces are some of the many practices that obstruct effective interoperability. These can be considered predatory innovation practices.

Fig. 3 Sketch by authors highlighting key ways in which interoperability plays a role in reducing lock-in

CONCLUSION

By deploying this toolkit of neutrality, portability and interoperability principles, policy-makers around the world could reinvigorate the digital environment, making it more diverse and robust. The combined forces of neutrality, portability, and interoperability would create reassurances to entrepreneurs everywhere that they would get a fair shot in the market, whilst providing reassurance to political leaders that tech providers will not limit sovereignty and autonomy through lock-in mechanisms.

As such, the deployment of a neutrality, portability, and interoperability toolkit would help ensure the internet continues to operate at the scale of our current challenges: If the collapse of ecosystems and the ensuing displacement of millions of people is an inherently planetary challenge, then we need an equivalently planetary system of knowledge to tackle it.

However, it is important to acknowledge that these three tools will be less effective at solving issues like privacy. For example, within our existing technological arrangement, gatekeepers controlling the AppStores and web browsers have been taking on part of the responsibility of protecting the users from abuses by malicious apps and websites. The moment these gatekeepers see their powers curtailed, it is likely that the malicious activity will increase until the power vacuum is filled. If the information ecosystem is to thrive, we will need such oversight powers to be exercised by independent bodies, not market players. Institutions capable of protecting people from malicious actors, but also from the abuses by the corporate gatekeepers themselves.

The toolkit would help in solving the techlash by nurturing a more informed public debate. How? Well, rules promoting neutrality, portability and interoperability are, by definition, rules that promote and often require information sharing between different companies and state actors. Companies start having strong incentives to release key pieces of information so that their products work seamlessly with others. These are therefore norms that promote coordination. And though such a toolkit cannot aim to solve challenges like privacy directly, the information sharing would enable a more robust public debate around how technology is being designed and how the overarching interconnected information system is actually operating. A debate that public representatives should be agile to engage with in order to ensure we re-align our technological development priorities with the public interest.

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Juan Ortiz Freuler is a researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a PhD student at the Annenberg School of Communication (USC). Stefano Quintarelli is an internet entrepreneur and a former Italian MP who coined the “device neutrality” paradigm.

A shorter version of this piece was published on Euractiv on June 28, 2022.

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