Facebook bags former UK Deputy PM as lobbyist in chief

Former MP Sir Nick Clegg has joined Facebook to take over as VP of Global Affairs and Communications. In other words, it’s chief lobbyist.

The appointment is certainly an interesting one. Having led the Liberal Democrats (the political form of irrelevance) from 2007 to 2015, and served as Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government under Prime Minister David Cameron, Clegg was defeated in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam by the Labour representative.

“Having spoken at length to Mark and Sheryl over the last few months, I have been struck by their recognition that the company is on a journey which brings new responsibilities not only to the users of Facebook’s apps but to society at large,” said Clegg in a Facebook post. “I hope I will be able to play a role in helping to navigate that journey.”

Based out of California, the hire could be an clever move for Facebook. Clegg, despite being as inspirational as scrambled eggs, has plenty of experience of the political ping pong, most crucially as a Member of the European Parliament for East Midlands between 1999 and 2004, and a position as a European Commission trade negotiator. Being one of the most stringent regulatory markets on the planet, having Clegg’s European experience is certainly a bonus.

The issue which Facebook might face in hiring Clegg is the weight which he carries. Being leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister might look good to US corporates on the CV, but the reality might be a bit different. The Liberal Democrats are a featherweight presence in British politics, and while Clegg did lead the party to the weighty presence of 57 seats in the House of Commons, he also led them off a cliff to eight in the following General Election during 2015. Clegg left politics rather sheepishly and without leaving any real legacy or memory.

Unfortunately for Facebook, the UK is one of the markets where Clegg will be most needed. With CEO Mark Zuckerberg under threat of a summons after repeatedly ignoring calls to appear before a Parliamentary Select Committee, someone needs to calm the UK waters. With the neither the Conservative or the Labour party holding in him in particularly high regard, it might be more of a beg mission than lobbying.

“Our company is on a critical journey,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a separate post. “The challenges we face are serious and clear and now more than ever we need new perspectives to help us though this time of change.

“The opportunities are clear too. Every day people use our apps to connect with family and friends and make a difference in their communities. If we can honor the trust they put in us and live up to our responsibilities, we can help more people use technology to do good. That’s what motivates our teams and from all my conversations with Nick, it’s clear that he believes in this as well. His experience and ability to work through complex issues will be invaluable in the years to come.”

Change is certainly on the horizon for Facebook. With numerous scandals plaguing the business, and the threat of a GDPR fine following the most recent data breach, the team will have to carefully manage the Gaggle of Red-tapers in Brussels. Europe already the most stringent data protection and privacy rules worldwide, and it would be no surprise to see those tightened further. Clegg certainly has an interesting couple of months ahead.

25% of Brits would ditch ISP if porn is blocked – MoneySupermarket

The net neutrality debate could be emerging on the UK horizon but the message here is don’t mess around too much; it wouldn’t take much for consumers to switch ISPs.

New research from MoneySupermarket has indicated UK consumers are pretty sensitive when it comes to the idea of the open internet. This is a debate which has certainly captured the imagination of the US, though the UK has largely been shielded by its inclusion in the European Union and rules being written in Brussels. With Brexit looming large, it is possible the UK would no longer be answerable to BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) and free to decide its own course down the net neutrality road.

But the message from MoneySupermarket is simple; becoming too authoritarian on what content consumers can access and they will leave pretty sharpish. 64% of respondents would switch ISPs if blocks were put in place, with one in four specifying the blocking of porn as a reason to leave. Right now the status quo is holding solid, with the telcos largely only blocking requested and illegal content, though Brexit could change this.

By leaving the Union the UK is giving up the right to influence any new policies. Therefore, if it remains as part of BEREC it would have to comply with rules it has no influence over, Emily Thompson of MoneySupermarket points out. This would contradict the rationale of Brexit in the first place, though in the pursuit of a healthy relationship with Europe, the rules might have to be swallowed. Having the power to write the rules which govern the land is something which every government around the world would want, therefore staying in BEREC seems unlikely.

“While the dialogue regarding net neutrality in the UK is relatively low-key, it has controversially been repealed in the US, suggesting that it could become a much bigger issue once Brexit is finalised and we look at rethinking European legislation,” said Thompson. “For now, ISPs need to decide what’s in the best interest of their customers: eschewing the current net neutrality laws to reduce competition or getting on the side of the consumer and keeping the internet fair and equal.”

One of the areas which will come under scrutiny should the UK and BEREC part ways is net neutrality. We have already seen how divisive this debate has become in the US, with California introducing its own state level rules contradicting the FCC and potentially leading to a constitutional crisis. The scenario is slightly different in the UK, though the telcos will still want the opportunity to make more money.

Part of the reason net neutrality is such a big topic in the US is due to competition. A notable number of customers have limited options when selecting a broadband provider, which is not the case in the UK. Thanks to the UK being a small island and Openreach laying the foundations for broadband access, most customers have options when it comes to providers. ISPs cannot dictate the terms as much as across the pond and will have to be careful about blocking websites or promoting certain traffic for fear of losing customers to competitors.

However, executives might not be able to resist the temptation of making more money. The idea of a two-speed digital highway would be attractive to the telcos, monetizing the speed of delivery to the consumer. Experience is everything nowadays, and a slow-loading website might be enough for a consumer never to consider that curry house or wallpaper manufacturer ever again. We doubt the ISPs would go as far as holding the businesses to ransom by blocking websites who don’t pay or because a competitor pays for it, but it is a possibility.

Predicting which way the relationship with BEREC will go is a tricky one right now as it relies on the final deal the UK strikes with the European Union. We can’t imagine the UK Government will be happy about being told about how to regulate its own telco industry, irrelevant of how friendly the final terms are. It might not be too long before the net neutrality debate washes ashore; prepare for some propaganda from the telcos about why it is fair to create a digital toll-road to help fund the rollout of infrastructure.

Google fights back against EU plans to impose its regulations on rest of world

Today the European Court of Justice will make a decision which will impact the global digital economy. Does the European Union have the right to impose its own data protection and privacy standards on everyone else?

The one-day hearing has been brought about because of French data protection watchdog, CNIL, pressing for Google to extend the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling to all of its domains. When such a request is made and accepted, Google will remove content from search results in the relevant domain (e.g. .fr in France for example), but also when users from that country are searching through other domains (e.g. .com or .co.uk). CNIL argues the content should be removed from all domains, irrelevant where the user is based.

“This case could see the right to be forgotten threatening global free speech,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of free speech advocacy group Article 19. “European data regulators should not be allowed to decide what Internet users around the world find when they use a search engine. The CJEU (European Court of Justice) must limit the scope of the right to be forgotten in order to protect the right of Internet users around the world to access information online.”

While it might not seem like the most damning of cases, the ripples from this ruling could quickly become turbulent waves. Google and numerous other free speech advocacy groups argue this is simply France, and the European Union, pursuing their own form of censorship, imposing their own standards on other nations around the world. Should the judges rule in favour of CNIL precedent would be set and precedent can be very dangerous.

If the European Union can force other countries into complying with its regulations, why shouldn’t others?

“If European regulators can tell Google to remove all references to a website, then it will be only a matter of time before countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia start to do the same,” said Hughes. “The CJEU should protect freedom of expression not set a global precedent for censorship.”

The question these judges have to answer is a relatively simple one on the surface; should governments and regulators have influence over those who live in their jurisdiction or should they be afforded power over everyone else as well? For us, the answer is incredibly simple as well; no it shouldn’t.

The whole concept of the CNIL argument is contradictory and patronising; it’s a form of digital colonialism, with France assuming it is the moral, ethical and political authority on such matters. If China or Russia were pressing for their rules to be imposed on the international stage, there would be uproar. Of course, the rules in these countries are backwards, though the principle remains the same. France should not be allowed to dictate to other countries around the world.

This is another example of globalisation trends working against the consumer. Companies like Google make use of the grey areas and cracks between the legislative and regulatory regimes of different countries. They take advantage of lighter-touch regulation in some countries, remaining out of reach of those who are more involved. The absence of an international code or ruling authority simply offers the internet players a blank rule book and encourages lawyers to look for loop-holes to ignore regulations in more privacy-sensitive countries. That said, the will of one nation, or a dozen or 28, should not be imposed on the rest of the world.

For Telecoms.com, the decision is a simple one; France should be told to govern its own country and not get involved in jurisdictions which does not concern it. The precedent set would be far too dangerous.

GSMA puts out one final plea for spectrum sanity

With a crucial Ministerial Council Meeting looming where the European Electronic Communication Code will be discussed at length, the GSMA has put out a final appeal for reform.

The GSMA stance has not changed, and neither has it’s vocal PR campaign; reforming telecoms regulation is a crucial step to foster investment and innovation. The European Electronic Communication Code is an opportunity to create new policies and regulatory foundation to build the basis of the connected economy, but there are fears over the current path being tread by bureaucrats.

“Although the European Union’s vision of a ‘Gigabit Society’, and recent discussions amongst the European Heads of State, demonstrate a strong ambition to recapture the region’s digital leadership and harness the full power of digital to drive growth, jobs and competitiveness, we do not see action focused on delivering tangible results,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA, in the letter.

Granryd seems to be saying something very simple here; thinking big is fine, but if you carry on this direction, you will mess it up. It might frustrating to watch, and there will always be need for vocal criticism in the industry, but Granryd perhaps needs to appreciate he is referring to civil servants. There are plenty of good ideas in the public sector offices, but more often than not, a lack of drive/resources/talent to achieve them.

The concern here is over Europe’s stance on spectrum management, which Granryd and his GSMA cronies believes need to be reformed. More specifically around the following areas:

  • More certainty and predictability for spectrum licenses
  • Minimum licence duration of 25 years with a strong presumption of renewal
  • Voluntary spectrum sharing to enable competition, innovation and differentiation
  • Fee structures that are reflective of efficient and effective use of spectrum as well as coverage commitments

Granryd’s concern is surround the status quo, and whether it will be preserved. This position would leave too much differentiation in the European markets, and a fragmented market is no good for anyone. The single market allows Europe to play the same game as the US or China, for instance, but whether this is an achievable dream remains to be seen. Change is difficult, but change is needed to ensure a successful transition to the digital economy. Granryd is clearly a bit nervous.

We certainly don’t like it when organizations feel the need to moan, especially through a letter, but you have to have a bit of sympathy for Granryd. Perhaps it is precedent set by public sector organizations, or the lofty assumption European heritage will take it back to a leadership role in the connected economy, but there is a risk of the easy, frictionless path will be taken.

The easy path is the preservation of the status quo, so Granryd might indeed have something to moan about before too long.

European telco associations implore the EU to get back on track

While many would consider the letter a product of a by-gone era, it is apparently pretty useful as a means to display irritation. That is certainly how it’s being used here.

Cable Europe, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, Digital Europe, ETNO, the GSMA and Allied for Startups have all come together to pen another letter of frustration and exasperation to the political leaders attending the Tallinn Digital Summit this week. The message is simple; you’re messing around too much and not spending enough money; you are putting the digital future of the European Union at risk.

“At the same time, we urge the European institutions to use this occasion to re-evaluate the current direction of the EU Digital Single Market legislative debate and compare it with its original objectives,” the letter states.

“We worry that many of the proposals currently under negotiation are drifting off-course, endangering Europe’s digital economy and its global leadership.”

The risk of over regulating or inadequately regulating the digital economy could be disastrous. An ETNO commissioned report released ahead of the conference claims the telco space has lost €100 million a day to disruptive digital technologies who have grasped the opportunity, but also perhaps made use of the regulatory grey areas which are present in the digital society.

We would take the €100 million a day claim with a pinch of salt, ETNO after all does have a weighted interest in created more positive trading conditions for the telcos, but the bigger point is true. Telcos have been losing the digital battle. Part of this will be down to the rigidity and lack of innovation within the telcos themselves, but it is true they are playing to a different, and stricter, rule book.

But ETNO’s issue with the research is focused purely on the negative impact on the telecoms sector, the letter is a much wider issue. Here, the associations aren’t saying the rule makers are messing it up just for the telcos, they’re messing it up for everyone. And it’s not difficult to agree with some of their points.

Looking at the first argument; spend more money.

“Boosting infrastructure deployment for best-in-class connectivity throughout the Continent is crucial to strengthening European competitiveness and to increasing citizens’ welfare,” the letter reads. “This requires a dramatic increase in investment, which depends on the approval of investment-conducive rules.”

The gang seem to be pinning the blame on rules which do not encourage investment or competition. It is a fair point, regulation moves slowly and has not been adapted to inspire capital expenditure. Rules on spectrum and fixed connectivity need to be simplified apparently, which would allow ‘greater predictability and increased consistency in spectrum licensing’.

But the blame cannot be solely placed on the rule makers; the telcos are not innocent here. For the most part there has not been the ambition to invest in infrastructure to lay the foundations of the gigabit society. How long have we been talking about fibre and how far into the journey have we travelled? The blame has to be shared, but it does seem like a convenient excuse for the telcos who have never looked like they want to spend any money.

The second point is an interesting one. The European Union has some of the more stringent data protection and residency rules worldwide, which the letter seems to attack. Germany is a prime example, where rules state personal information has to be kept within the national borders. This is a solid bit of rhetoric for politicians, but should it spread to other countries there is a threat for start-ups.

Imagine having to employ a data protection consultant or compliance expert for every territory you have a presence in. That would be a very expensive job and would possible limit the scaling opportunities for smaller and younger organizations. It is also quite a contradiction to the idea of the Digital Single Market.

Finally, looking forward to new regulations, the letter highlights the ‘well-intended’ e-Privacy rules, which demonstrates major inconsistencies with the GDPR. This could lead to over-regulation, harming the competitiveness of European companies in the global economy, but also to confusion on the part of the consumer. Data protection and privacy rules are already baffling to understand, and EU GDPR will only make things more complicated, so the last thing consumers and businesses need is an extra layer of complexity.

We at Telecoms.com are usually the ones who point the finger at passive aggressive letters, which direct blame away from the authors. There is usually no point in these letters, aside from winning a couple of PR points, but there are a couple of good arguments here. Regulation is a complicated arena right now, and it is only going to get worse. When you are trying to get 27 member states to play nice with each other, perhaps a more hands-off, light-touch approach would be preferable.