Internet and filtering applications: a tale of choice and revenues

The original version of this article was published in French by the newspaper Liberation. Last week, controversy erupted when FREE blocked advertising on internet services routed through its “FreeBox”. Internet content providers who rely on advertising to provide free content to consumers were furious.

The controversy illustrated the complexity of the internet economy. The delicate balance between choice and convenience, transparency and effective control, commerce and public interest.

My general starting principle is that consumers should be free to make real choices about their internet subscription and online activity.

Standard contracts and default settings for internet services can be convenient and efficient, but there are public-interest limits to this, either in general consumer protection law or in specific rules. For example, consumers have the right to choose whether they want to use ‘cookies’, which track their internet use, when browsing a website. And they should understand the costs and benefits of their choice.

The complexity and rapid evolution of the online economy mean new questions constantly arise about the public interest.

For example, since 2009, EU law promotes the ability of consumers to access the full range of lawful online applications, content and services. But the public interest does not, in my view, preclude consumers from subscribing to more differentiated, limited internet offers, possibly for a lower price.

Is there a public interest in parents having effective tools to control the material their young children can access online? Most would say yes, and the EU shares this view.

Likewise, most people would like a choice over whether or not to receive advertising alongside online content and services – but both consumers and online businesses seem to resent the perceived appropriation of that choice through obscure default settings.

In addressing questions like this, transparency and effective consumer control will nearly always be part of the solution.

That does not mean more pages to your 100-page contract! The Commission has been encouraging the advertising industry to ensure users get a clear choice about cookies, based on short, digestible information. The Commission is also working with a wider set of online actors to develop a “Do Not track” standard, so that consumers who make this choice can be sure it is respected.

On net neutrality, consumers need effective choice on the type of internet subscription they sign up to. That means real clarity, in non-technical language. About effective speeds in normal conditions, and about any restrictions imposed on traffic – and a realistic option to switch to a “full” service, without such restrictions, offered by their own provider or another. Ensuring consumer choice can mean constraints on others – in this case, an obligation for all internet service providers to offer an accessible “full” option to their customers. But such choice should also drive innovation and investment by internet providers, with benefits for all. I am preparing a Commission initiative to secure this effective consumer choice in Europe.

Make no mistake: I am in favour of an open Internet and maximum choice. That must be protected. But you don’t need me, or the EU, telling you what sort of Internet services you must pay for.

Applications available online already allow consumers to block some or all advertising, so distribution of such software by an internet provider like FREE is not in itself a revolution. But it forces us to consider two points.

First, consumers should not forget that choice has consequences. Opting for blocking ads or requesting privacy (‘do not track’) may mean you don’t get access to content for free. The internet does not run on its own. The network, content and internet access all have to be paid for by someone. Many smaller web operators exist on the basis of innovative advertising models. There are various ways consumers pay for content, including by viewing advertisements before or during their access to content. Businesses should accept that different consumers will have different preferences, and design services accordingly.

Second, we have seen the commercial and practical importance of default settings, but our reaction to a particular default setting can depend on both the values being defended and the specific implementation.

For example, because of the high value attached to privacy, we are less shocked by default settings that are restrictive than by those which are wide open – especially as regards more vulnerable users. In line with this, we are working with industry to improve the ways default privacy settings can protect children.

On the other hand, the high value that we attach to the open internet means that we promote installation of parental controls on all devices, but not their activation by default. This could, in practice, have the unintended consequence of limiting internet access for many adult users. Much better to give a real choice to parents, through clearly visible, user-friendly tools whose availability is well publicised.

We see the difficult interplay between these two interests – privacy and openness – when addressing the question whether “Do Not Track” should be activated by default in web browsers. Microsoft has chosen to do this in its Internet Explorer product. This has been criticised by competitors and advertisers. However, taking into account the competing public interests – and competition between browsers – and the availability of a user-friendly tool allowing individual choice both during installation and afterwards, I do not join that criticism of a commercial decision to appeal to privacy-conscious internet users. FREE’s initiative regarding default advertising blocking raised greater public-interest concerns because it was simultaneously wider in scope (affecting all advertising without exception) and was perceived to be difficult to reverse by end-users.

We see in these examples that individual company decisions affect sensitive public interests. Private actors can also contribute collectively to the public interest. The internet is a global community, governed through a multi-stakeholder approach which the EU strongly defended at a key UN conference in Dubai last month. Self-regulatory initiatives can complement legislation. The EU is currently facilitating such initiatives on behavioural advertising and tracking, and online child protection.

But such collective efforts must produce results that are clear, implementable and subject to monitoring and evaluation. And if they fail to meet public-interest objectives, the public authority must always reserve the right to step in.