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Internet Governance 9 January 2019

Future Thinking: Chris Yiu of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. While preparing to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report, we interviewed Chris Yiu to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Yiu is a senior policy fellow for technology in the Renewing the Centre team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His work focuses on how new technologies can be used to enhance the functioning of liberal democracy, and on policy solutions to the new economic challenges of automation and the digital economy. Chris was previously a general manager at Uber and has held senior roles in a number of public, private, and third-sector organizations. He recently authored the report, “A New Deal for Big Tech: Next-Generation Regulation Fit for the Internet Age (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2018).

The Internet Society: In your report you write that this “new deal for big tech” is urgent for protecting democratic values globally. Why?

Chris Yiu: Political leaders face an external environment characterised by disruption and rapid change, which people of all backgrounds are struggling to make sense of. Looking at the rise of populism across the West, what started as a closed-minded turn against globalisation is now being compounded by a backward-looking turn against progress. Technology has stripped traditional gatekeepers of their power, delivered real progress for consumers and businesses, and increased many freedoms. But it has also brought significant economic upheaval and heightened cultural pressures, along with huge unknowns about the future. Most importantly, technology has concentrated power in the hands of a relatively small number of companies that all too often wield it clumsily and without sufficient legitimacy.

In your report you also argue that regulation for legacy industries aren’t relevant for the pace and scale of the Internet, and that a new approach for regulating technology companies is needed. Why?

The Internet has fundamentally changed the operating environment for both companies and regulators, with very different cost structures giving rise to new incentives and business models. Across the board, technology-based challengers have not so much out-competed incumbent firms as made them obsolete. The same is true of old approaches to regulation: detailed rules and permissions worked well when markets were finite and relatively stable, but the Internet is characterised by effectively infinite scalability and rapid change. And of course we can no longer view it as a special case that can be dealt with by a few careful carve-outs and exemptions, because in today’s environment it has a bearing on every aspect of our economy and society. A fresh approach, based on stronger accountability coupled with more freedom to innovate, is the best way to align private incentives with the public interest.

You’ve written about competition law’s limitations, as have other popular media like The Economist recently. What is the role of data and consumer protection in your proposed new approach?

Stronger controls on things like data protection and privacy are necessary but not sufficient for consumers to make better decisions or competition to work effectively. In the report we talk about ensuring users have a meaningful understanding of what they are signing up to. This is different to impenetrable terms and conditions or being able to download your data file – when convenience supersedes most other considerations, people need an easy way to assess whether they are happy with the basic relationship they have with a service. More broadly, when we think about competition policy it’s important to remember that Internet-era cost structures and business models tend to result in firms getting large because they are doing something consumers want. So a long view of protecting consumers should not be overly concerned with scale per se, and instead place more weight on ensuring new challengers can get established.

You have suggested that a new regulator is needed to promote tech company responsibility, increase consumers’ digital literacy, and “rewrite obsolete rules for the Internet age.” Are existing regulators not up to the task of doing these things?

There are a couple of aspects to this. First, the core capabilities of many traditional regulators are not necessarily those required to exercise effective oversight of new, technology-based business models and markets. To be able to match the power of large tech companies, regulators need to be expert and fluent in the same fundamentals of Internet-scale operations, speed, data, and innovation. Large tech companies recruit different for different sorts of skills and mindsets compared to incumbent firms; we know that making this pivot is hard for traditional organisations and there is no reason to think that the regulators that mirror them are any different.

Second, the Internet is shaping the operating environment for all industries, and the impact of fundamental shifts in things like cost structures and business models is being felt across the economy. So when it comes to public policy, there is more commonality in the systemic issues arising from big tech firms across different sectors than there is between individual firms and the narrow markets they have disrupted. This puts a premium on a new generation of regulator anchored on the Internet rather than traditional sectors or industries.

Is there hope in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Data portability is an important principle, but I don’t think we can expect this alone to be enough to solve the biggest policy challenges. For one thing, as services achieve scale and differentiate from one another, it’s not always clear what portability would mean in practice (it’s easy to imagine porting your profile info and avatar from one service to another, but content far less so, let alone data observed or inferred about you). And of course some of the data that would have the greatest impact on competition – i.e., a user’s social graph – is explicitly off limits under regulation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Given the propensity of large firms to try to use their scale to consolidate their power, stronger checks on acquisitions of potentially competitive startups may be a better lever.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

That in the face of unrelenting external pressure, our political leaders and policymakers will get stuck trying to fight the Internet rather than accepting it and figuring out how to maximise its opportunities and mitigate its challenges. This could manifest in many ways, from a fracturing of the global commons into closed regional blocs, through to overbearing or poorly designed policy responses that do major collateral damage or inadvertently favour large incumbents over smaller competitors. In particular Europe and North America have much in common in terms of shared values; a renewed period of transatlantic cooperation on technology is of the utmost importance, but without strong political leadership it may be easier to turn inward than work together.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

We can’t uninvent the Internet – and even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. Despite all of the challenges – both economic and cultural – that we are grappling with, the Internet itself and the big tech companies that shape so much of daily lives are the product of a benign operating environment anchored on liberal democracy. And so I am optimistic that we can move past the techlash and leverage technology as a source of optimism about the future. A structured dialogue between those changing the world with new technologies, and those seeking to respond with policy and regulation, can still get us to a place where the benefits of technology are widely shared.

Read “Splintering the Internet: The Unintended Consequence of Regulation.”

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