With Amelia Andersdotter


As a global network, the Internet has been largely governed in the international arena under the ‘multistakeholder’ model. Certain countries wield more power in such processes, especially in comparison to developing nations.

This conversation interrogates the ‘multistakeholder’ model in the context of global political and economic inequities, unpacking the linkages between trade negotiations and their impact on competition in digital markets.

  It examines technical elements that can serve as antitrust safeguards in trade agreements, encouraging competition and local players in digital markets.

 

Could you tell us about yourself?

Amelia: I’ve been an elected member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Piratpartiet that I joined in 2006, out of concern for closed software in the public sector. The Piratpartiet had an information policy agenda centered around intellectual policy rights and privacy, which pretty much touches on all the pertinent issues relating to digital rights the way they are discussed today.

My first foray into international policies were trade agreements, and in particular intellectual property rights policies by the Swedish government, relating to pharma patents, copyright agendas, how these rules are inflexible, and so on.

Right now I work with Article 19 on a program that looks into the implications for human rights of technical design choices in standards for network equipment.

Could you tell us a little bit about the World Trade Organization’s ‘multistakeholder’ model, and how it shapes trade agreements?

How do these systems engage with a country’s competitiveness at the global level?

Amelia: What we’re seeing with the digital trade discussions in Geneva is that a lot of governments have an appetite for placing discussions about the rules governing the digital sphere in a place where they have a vote.

For a long time the internet has been broadly governed technically, but also politically, by a structure called the ‘multistakeholder model’. And it’s worked fairly well. The end result has often been broadly beneficial for a whole bunch of people around the world.

But the problem with the multistakeholder model is that it hasn’t been particularly ‘multi’. The fact of the matter is, most people around the world don’t actually have the kind of stakes you need to adequately participate in the forums that call themselves ‘multi stakeholder’.

And by stakes, I don’t mean that you are a civil society organization with a grant to attend an ICANN meeting, or that you can write a report about what different people in the meeting are saying about human rights. I mean actual economic stakes. For instance, owning infrastructure, having the power to decide how that infrastructure is managed etc.

But the problem with the multistakeholder model is that it hasn’t been particularly ‘multi’. The fact of the matter is, most people around the world don’t actually have the kind of stakes you need to adequately participate in the forums that call themselves ‘multi stakeholder’.

Especially in the Domain Name System (DNS) space, the big contention for a large number of years has been the uneven distribution of letters for root servers between countries. For technical people it sounds weird that this would be a controversy because the letters don’t really mean much technically. But it is symbolic. Either you’re a country with a letter, or in the case of the US- you’re a country with 11 letters. Sweden has one, and I think Netherlands has the last one.

So if you wanted to make the system more inclusive you would give more people letters. It’s just that simple because it’s symbolic. If you don’t get the letter, you don’t get the root server, and you don’t get the trust.

This is why it becomes a political issue. Now with the digital trade discussions, especially for the global south they would emanate a lot, or go towards exactly this problem, that their countries haven’t had stakes. But they know that in the WTO they have a vote. Or even in the International Telecommunications Union, they have a vote.

And even if this is not a big stake, and even if that vote can be manipulated by foreign direct investment from bigger economies, if ever you wanted to express yourself, you could do so with this vote. In the multi stakeholder model, you don’t really have this option.

In your perspective, what do countries in the global south need to do in these trade negotiations to ensure some sort of economic independence, or control over the digital resources that are being manipulated?

How can they facilitate competition in their local context?

Amelia: I think a functioning approach to digital markets is always to actually make use of one of the core features of the internet, which is vertical unbundling. Make sure that there are many markets, which in turn are as open to entrepreneurs as possible.

So don’t build vertically integrated silos, and also try to discourage the rise of vertical silos. Because, if you have big vertical silos, if you’re dependent on one actor to build the entire mobile network in your region or your country- whoever that actor is, is going to have to be somebody with a lot of capital. And if that someone doesn’t come from your country, they’re going to come from a different country and have a lot of control over your networks.

By having open networks, or constructing networks and digital technologies in an interoperable way, you can have localized networks. Maybe have municipalities build their own fiber rings. With this kind of decentralized approach, you’re ensuring that local entrepreneurs have some basis from where to start their economic activities.

 

If you have big vertical silos, if you’re dependent on one actor to build the entire mobile network in your region or your country- whoever that actor is, is going to have to be somebody with a lot of capital. And if that someone doesn’t come from your country, they’re going to come from a different country and have a lot of control over your networks. 

And then, since markets aren’t entirely fair, you’d have to hope that one of the entrepreneurs you encourage, somehow makes it somewhere! But at least there’s a better chance of having somebody produce a successful service, because they can actually launch their service in the first place. So in trade negotiations, countries should ensure that there are no restrictions on how you enforce antitrust. Preferably try to make sure that there are antitrust considerations already in place in the trade agreement.

Are there any existing agreements- whether the Free Trade Agreements, or in the WTO, that have any reference to antitrust considerations, at all?

Amelia: As far as I’m aware, no.

What is the conversation in the EU right now around vertical integration?

Amelia: The telecommunications sector has some history in this regard. Local Loop Unbundling Regulation of 2000 was extremely successful in encouraging broadband roll out. Some of the markets where they imposed functional separation on telecommunications operators, like UK or Sweden, are also the markets where we now have the cheapest, fastest and most consumer friendly connections or offers for consumers.

They’ve also attempted to make some sort of vertical separation for operating systems and browsers in the Microsoft decision of 2007. And now again in the Android decision in 2018, where they said Google needs to be more aggressive in marketing non-Google apps. Which I think is maybe a bit cautious of the commission?

In the telecoms they delved into the technical sphere, local loop bundling. So, if you own the fiber, you need to ensure that somebody else can also access it and put their traffic through. They could’ve had a much more technical decision in the google android case as well. For instance, they could have said that Google needs to ensure access to competing Application Program Interfaces (API). There’s Micro G, then there’s a project called /e/ (formerly eelo) that tries to replace parts of Google features.

If they had vertically segmented the market, they could have perhaps enabled more actors to not only make apps, but to also compete with Google app store. Users could be able to choose API providers-- for instance who mediates a temperature measurement or the access to the network card.

That could have put European industries in a better position for the future, for launching, or perhaps building their own services.

Regarding the Android decision, why do you say they’re being cautious?

Amelia: Because I would imagine the disadvantage of having competing API structures for a mobile operating system is weaker for security reasons.

If you have a vertically integrated mobile operating system, it’s much easier to control security features. And this is also an argument that telecommunication operators have used for their networks, that they’re using now in developing 5G,- which is a really vertically integrated model of network management. They’re saying this allows for better control, we can enhance security- because we have better control and management over all features.

And that’s a tough argument for competition authorities to beat. Because it’s a bit true. If you have better control, you can also be more secure. It is kind of a trade off.

So would you say that the technology itself sort of lends itself to centralized and vertically integrated models?

Amelia: On the contrary. It lends itself to decentralization. That is why we’re having all of these discussions about online and cyber security.

The entire internet is basically built to be layered and decentralized. Like a lasagna model. So each layer takes care of itself, and you can have security on each layer. But then securing the entire value chain requires coordination between different actors, as well as shared responsibilities.

Ultimately, what is more beneficial for society: that Google can claim they perfectly secured the android ecosystem, or that Google is exposed to some competition?

So the issue is more about strategic security, its more political?

Amelia: Well, it’s more difficult also from a technical perspective if you need to negotiate with multiple parties, and get many different bits of a network to work together. The more actors that need to agree to a common protocol, the more difficult it gets, and it's not just for lack of will.

But it’s not impossible to get things working well enough. You have to make some kind of assessment- about ultimately, what is more beneficial for society: that Google can claim they perfectly secured the android ecosystem, or that Google is exposed to some competition? And if your answer is that you would rather live under a perfectly secure Google monopoly then… basically, I think that’s the choice a society needs to make.

 

This article is part of Bot Populi's Competition in the Digital Economy series.

 


In 2018, the EU’s competition commission, led by commissioner Margrethe Vestager, fined Google Euro 4.34 billion for illegal practices around its android devices. In particular, the commission found Google in breach of competition policy, as Google required manufacturers to pre-install Google search engine and browsing (Chrome) apps, among other infringements.

Before she completes her term, Vestager is working on competition policy reforms appropriate for the digital era, moving beyond the sole focus on consumer welfare, to the welfare of societies.