France’s telecom regulator thinks net neutrality should also apply to devices

The ARCEP, France’s equivalent of the FCC in the U.S., wants to go beyond telecommunications companies. While many regulatory authorities have focused on carriers and internet service providers, the French authority thinks Google, Apple, Amazon and all the big tech companies also need their own version of net neutrality.

The ARCEP just published a thorough 65-page report (embedded below) about the devices we use every day. The report says that devices give you a portion of the internet and prevent an open internet.

“With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets,” ARCEP president Sébastien Soriano told me. “Everybody assumes that the devices that we use to go online don’t have a bias. But if you want to go online, you need a device just like you need a telecom company.”

With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets Sébastien Soriano

Now that net neutrality has been laid down in European regulation, the ARCEP has been looking at devices for the past couple of years. And it’s true that you can feel you’re stuck in an ecosystem once you realize you have to use Apple Music on an Apple Watch, or the Amazon Echo assumes you want to buy stuff on when you say ‘Alexa, buy me a tooth brush’.

“The interface of the smartphone makes it much more comfortable than a computer,” Soriano said. “But they’re holding your hand — the size of the screen means that they don’t show you as many things.”

And smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg. Voice assistants and connected speakers are even less neutral than smartphones. Game consoles, smartwatches and connected cars all share the same issues.

The ARCEP doesn’t think we should go back to computers and leave our phones behind. This isn’t a debate about innovation versus regulation. Regulation can also foster innovation.

“This report has listed for the first time ever all the limitations you face as a smartphone user,” Soriano said. “By users, we mean both consumers and developers who submit apps in the stores.”

Some changes that would benefit end users

Of course, the ARCEP wants to be in charge of all those limitations so that users don’t end up being stuck forever in a closed ecosystem. You can also find a bunch of suggestions in the report. For instance, you should be able to uninstall all pre-installed apps on your phone.

You should be able to use an alternative to the App Store or Play Store because Apple and Google have their own editorial and validation teams. It forces developers to play by their rules, even though some of those rules are just here to protect Apple or Google.

They curate content on 86 percent of what we do with our smartphones Sébastien Soriano

Even if Apple or Google don’t want to replace their stores, you could imagine alternative search engines that connect to the App Store or Play Store thanks to APIs. There’s no reason why we can switch from Google to Qwant or DuckDuckGo, but not from the Play Store to another search engine.

“Today, apps represent 86 percent of mobile internet traffic,” Soriano said. “They curate content on 86 percent of what we do with our smartphones.”

The ARCEP wants to look at exclusive services and content. Sometimes, it’s true that exclusive services foster competition. But the ARCEP wants to keep an eye on it.

“We looked at Progressive Web Apps. Those Progressive Web Apps look interesting because it lets you combine the best of the web and apps,” Soriano said. But the ARCEP is also aware that Progressive Web Apps still aren’t as nice and powerful as native apps. “It seems a bit premature at this stage to force this model as the default model on smartphones,” Soriano said.

There are other suggestions in the report to help developers and consumers. Those are just ideas for now, but the ARCEP plans to use them soon.

Turning those suggestions into a law

“Legally, those suggestions can be passed as a law in France,” Soriano said. “If a French politician wants to reuse our suggestions into a law, it’s possible. We’re just calling out a problem we identified and making propositions.” This would be just the first step before bringing the issue to a European level.

Soriano said France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Mounir Mahjoubi could be interested in those discussions involving tech platforms. He also plans to go to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to talk with European politicians and phone manufacturers.

In all cases, this is an interesting document that asks the right questions. And if the FCC wants to reconsider its stance on net neutrality, it would be a good idea to look at tech companies in addition to telecom companies.