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Column: The open internet is an ideal that should unite citizens, governments and web companies

Column: The open internet is an ideal that should unite citizens, governments and web companies

The open Internet is in jeopardy and may vanish before our very eyes. But many are choosing to look away, without realizing what they will be sacrificing. Open Internet aims to give everyone the opportunity to publish and access any information and content of their choice without restriction from those who run it. It is an ideal of freedom and equality which gives the same power and opportunities to all Internet users. It is an ideal that should unite all of us: citizens, governments, and committed web companies.

In the past few years, this idea of freedom and equality on the Internet has been greatly undermined. The open Internet is subject to surreptitious threats related to the extremely rapid consolidation of the global technology market. 

Today, Big Tech control entire sectors of our economy: search, mobile content, social networks, and much of retail commerce. They have proven highly adept at leveraging the revenues they generate from the industries they dominate to effectively curb innovation and hinder the emergence of other players in related sectors. Most tellingly, Big Tech accounts for less than half the time spent on the Internet but holds more than three quarters of the industry’s added value, and this trend is intensifying each year.

This is not just an economic issue. It is essential to acknowledge that this situation also has a significant impact on the way we live. As it is, one could not design a more restricted, more controlled system, more contrary to what the founders of the web devised than the current one. Allowing the Internet to shut itself means resigning ourselves to having our personal information governed by four global corporations, with the power to arrange things how they see it. This lack of consumer choice forces us to comply with privacy and ethical standards that we do not necessarily accept and cuts any possible alternative.

Since Big Tech controls entire parts of the digital ecosystem, they are also plagued by major conflicts of interest toward Internet users. The main problem comes from having the same company offer a service to Internet users, while also selling the personal data of those same Internet users. This process makes any kind of transparency about the use of data and the protection of consumers’ privacy particularly difficult. In this opaque model, the predominant operator will always be tempted to use data it collects beyond reasonable business use.

This major conflict of interest cannot be resolved without the intervention of public authorities. It is urgent that we overhaul the current digital ecosystem in order to make it more transparent and more protective of the personal choices of each Internet user. To manage such risks of conflicts of interest, public authorities can draw inspiration from what they have successfully done in the banking sector, by separating commercial from investment banking. 

In the digital sector, one can only wish for clear rules that separate consumer services from the monetization of these same services. These measures would make it much easier to check the way our personal data is used and will surely prevent some of the abuses we have witnessed. 

Fighting for an open Internet is not only about defending a theoretical principle; it is also about trying to protect our lifestyle and individual choices in a tangible way. This is why we must act at once. Only then will the web be reopened to entrepreneurial freedom and to actual freedom of choice for Internet users. That is the very essence of the Internet. That is what we must protect at all costs, as one.

JB Rudelle is founder and CEO of open internet advertising platform Criteo. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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