The open internet is a founding principle of the web. It is an environment that allows all players to interact directly with audiences and consumers while ensuring fair and transparent access to data and measurement. It is an ideal that should unite all of us: citizens, governments and committed web companies.
However, the open internet today is in jeopardy and at risk of never returning to its intended state. And simultaneously, advertisers across the ecosystem are choosing to look away without realizing what they will sacrifice long-term.
In the past few years, this idea of freedom and equality on the internet has been undermined. The open internet is subject to surreptitious pressure related to the extremely rapid consolidation of the global technology market. Today, control of entire sectors of our economy—search, mobile content, social networks and much of retail commerce—has been concentrated into the hands of a few organizations. This has resulted in a scenario in which a handful of major players can leverage the revenues they generate from the industries they dominate, making it extremely difficult for other smaller players to emerge in related sectors and compete. When the big tech firms are spending heavily on innovation, this effectively discourages innovation.
According to The Economist, the five big tech companies accounted for 10% of the S&P 500’s total spending on research and development in 2010. Today, their share is 30%. The dominant tech platforms account for less than half the time spent on the internet but hold more than three-quarters of the industry’s added value, and this trend is intensifying each year.
The market is allowing fewer and fewer new independent players to emerge. If I wanted to launch the company I created almost 15 years ago into the current digital ecosystem, I could no longer do it. The problem is not access to funding, either. We have made significant progress in this area over the past 10 years, and we should be happy about that. The fundamental problem is that a very large part of the digital ecosystem has become impenetrable.
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.
The current system is increasingly restricted and controlled and is rapidly moving away from the open internet the founders of the web envisioned and devised. Allowing this restriction means resigning ourselves to having our personal information placed into the hands of a concentrated few corporations with the power to arrange things how they see it. Consumers have very little say in this and must comply with the privacy and ethical standards they might not necessarily accept. It also cuts off any chance of a possible alternative.
Since large technology organizations control entire parts of the digital ecosystem, they are also plagued by major conflicts of interest toward consumers. The main problem comes from having the same company offer a service to internet users while also selling the personal data of those same people. 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 the 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, 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 prevent some of the abuses we have witnessed.
Fighting for an open internet is not only about defending a theoretical principle, but 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 users. That is the very essence of the internet and what we must protect at all costs.