40 execs sign a pledge to make the internet a nice place

Industry lobby group the GSMA has launched its ‘digital declaration’, signed by executives from 40 technology firms and telcos, aiming to make the digital economy a safer place, accessible to all.

With the likes of Bharti Airtel, China Mobile, Sharp, SK Telecom and Vodafone signing the deal, the GSMA is embracing its hippy calling of peace, love and digitisation. The declaration pins the hopes and dreams of the industry onto several different principles, which theoretically should lead to a warm and embracing internet.

“Social, technological, political and economic currents are combining to create a perfect storm of disruption across all industries,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “A new form of responsible leadership is needed to successfully navigate this era.

“We are on the cusp of the 5G era, which will spark exciting new possibilities for consumers and promises to transform the shape of virtually every business. In the face of this disruption, those that embrace the principles of the Digital Declaration will strive for business success in ways that seek a better future for their consumers and societies. Those that do not change can expect to suffer increasing scrutiny from shareholders, regulators and consumers.”

Looking at the principles themselves, they are relatively simple. Respect the privacy of digital citizens; handle personal data securely and transparently; take meaningful steps to mitigate cyber threats; and ensure everyone can participate in the digital economy as it develops whilst combatting online harassment. Its broad enough to allow wiggle room, but accurate enough to ensure all the right buzzwords are ticked off the list. You can have a look at the full declaration here.

While it is certainly a step in the right direction to get these organizations to sign a document recognising the importance of often ignored concepts such as inclusion and security, perhaps the next step should be to engage governments and regulators.

The CEOs of these technology and telco giants will certainly play an influential role in the success of the internet, though these are companies which will be playing within the rules set by higher powers. Policy, regulation, legislation and public funding will play an incredibly powerful part, though with such varied political regimes across the world, getting them to at least acknowledge these constant principles should be a priority.

Another interesting omission from the list are the powerful and influential internet players. The likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook will perhaps play a more significant role than the telcos and technology vendors who have already signed the document as they slip into the grey areas of regulation. The OTTs have been effectively doing what they like to date, such is the difficulty in matching regulation with the pace of change in this segment, and while such a document is little more than a PR ploy, it would at least demonstrate some accountability.

Give control back to your users, scholars tell Facebook

In a new position paper, scholars from Oxford and Stanford recommended nine measures Facebook should take to make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy.

The report, titled “GLASNOST! Nine ways Facebook can make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy”, was jointly published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford University. The scholars, headlined by the historian Timothy Garton Ash, recommended Facebook take concrete steps related to three key aspects of the social network’s operation: content policy and moderation practices, news feed, and governance.

The starting premise of the report is that, with over 2.2 billion active users and being in the centre of past and present controversies and conversations, Facebook has gone beyond the stage where it could choose “between self-regulation and no regulation”. Decisions made inside Facebook could have strong political, social, and cultural impact on the world outside of it. “A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national (or even EU-wide) legislation,” the report says.

Instead, the authors argued, Facebook needs to make itself more transparent with both its policies and the interpretation and implementation mechanisms of these policies to the outside world including both its users, its customers, and other institutions, and engage more with regulators and the civil society, academia, and NGOs.

The authors recognised that Facebook has made efforts in all the three aspects over the past few years, especially after the Cambridge Analytica case was uncovered. They argued however that more should be done. Specifically the authors suggested the following:

Regarding “content policy and the moderation of political speech”, Facebook should

  • Tighten community standards wording on hate speech
  • Hire more and contextually expert content reviewers
  • Increase ‘decisional transparency’
  • Expand and improve the appeals process

Targeting at “News Feed”, the authors suggested that in order to move “towards more diverse, trustworthy political information”, Facebook should

  • Provide meaningful News Feed controls for users
  • Expand context and fact-checking facilities

When it comes to the company’s “governance”, the report recognises that Facebook has adopted “cautious glasnost” recently but in order to grow “from Transparency to Accountability” the company should

  • Establish regular auditing mechanisms
  • Create an external content policy advisory group
  • Establish an external appeals body

Admittedly, Facebook is far from being the only culprit. The authors also agreed that “many of the problems identified here are also found on other platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter.” Additionally, Facebook does have policies related to content and its moderation, though their interpretation or implementation could be called into question. Platforms like Twitter on the other hand, barely have a policy or standard practice in place.

Despite the authors’ claim that the “goal of this report is to focus on areas that Facebook itself can feasibly improve now”, it would require radical changes on Facebook’s side to put any of these recommendations into practice, both how the company is run, and how it is judged. The authors argued that “ideally, the user interface and experience on Facebook should be designed to promote active, informed citizenship, and not merely clickbait addiction for the commercial benefit of Facebook, the corporation.” However, commercial benefit is the most important index how a business is evaluated. In addition to stressing the company’s responsibilities beyond business returns, the authors could also remind it of the commercial damage from not acting in a responsible way. For example, advertisers would run away from the platform if a Cambridge Analytica type of scandal were to happen again.

The changes needed, as the authors also agreed, are easier said than done. Some suggestions are reasonable. For example, the report suggested Facebook, and other social platforms, consider industry wide self-regulating mechanisms following the model of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which oversees brokerage firms and the securities industry in the US. But it also agrees that it is hard to define the “industry” for the social networks. Other suggestions are much harder for Facebook and others to take. For example the report requests Facebook to open its data and, more importantly, its algorithms, which are the most guarded secrets in all internet companies.

The choice of the report’s title is also interesting. “Glasnost” is Russian for “openness, transparency”. Together with “perestroika”, Russian for “reform”, the concepts were popularised by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The report suggested that, to achieve real change instead of merely glorified PR, “beyond glasnost, we need perestroika” from Facebook, a line almost surely from Professor Garton Ash, a leading scholar in Central and Eastern European history. If the young executives at Menlo Park are unaware of the historical connotation of these concepts, they may want to know that by embracing Glasnost and Perestroika, Gorbachev brought the Soviet empire to its demise.

Trump set sights on spectrum strategy

US President Donald Trump has unveiled plans to create a National Spectrum Strategy to prepare the country prepare for the introduction of 5G wireless networks.

The presidential memorandum, which was signed last week, directs the Secretary of Commerce to work with agencies and policy makers on all levels to develop a National Spectrum Strategy. As part of the strategy, the Secretary of the department will report annually to the President on efforts to repurpose spectrum, while a Spectrum Strategy Task Force will also be created which, including representatives from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Security Council, the National Space Council, and the Council of Economic Advisers.

“American companies and institutions rely heavily on high-speed wireless connections, with increasing demands on both speed and capacity,” the memorandum states. “Wireless technologies are helping to bring broadband to rural, unserved, and underserved parts of America. Spectrum-dependent systems also are indispensable to the performance of many important United States Government missions. And as a Nation, our dependence on these airwaves is likely to continue to grow.”

Within 180 days, executive departments and agencies are required to report to the Secretary of Commerce on their anticipated future spectrum requirements, while the OSTP shall submit a report to the President on emerging technologies and the expected impact on spectrum demand. Once these reports have been submitted and assessed, the Secretary of Commerce will have to brief the White House on the status of existing efforts and planned near- to mid-term spectrum repurposing initiatives, as well as a long-term National Spectrum Strategy that includes legislative, regulatory, or other policy recommendations to rework the approach to spectrum management.

While work on spectrum has been underway for some time, this intervention from the White House demonstrates the importance of 5G to the US economy, and perhaps its long-standing battle with the Chinese to maintain control of the global economy.  Although Silicon Valley still maintains the leadership position on the worldwide technology and telecommunications industry, this grip is not quite as ironclad as it was in previous years. With digital taking over in the cockpit as the driver for almost every ‘developed’ economy around the world, a flexible, future-proofed spectrum policy is critical.

“We commend the administration for recognizing the importance of establishing a national spectrum strategy,” said CTIA President Meredith Baker. “With the right approach based on licensed wireless spectrum, America’s wireless carriers will invest hundreds of billions of dollars and create millions of jobs to deploy next-generation networks and win the global 5G race.”

“Spectrum has become one of the most critical inputs for the communications and information technologies that are driving America’s economic growth,” a statement from the NCTA reads. “The services that rely on unlicensed spectrum alone generated more than $525 billion in value for the U.S. economy in 2017. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the White House, NTIA, and the FCC on the development of a balanced national spectrum policy that will meet the growing need for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum to support next-generation wireless technologies.”

The attention from the White House will certainly be welcomed by the industry, though some have questioned why it has taken so long. With the Trump administration focusing on other areas, in particular looking outwards, some critics have questioned why it has taken so long for the White House to take a firm position in the 5G world. Democrat FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is one who has questioned the sluggish nature of the administration, particularly focused on reports and action, suggesting it has allowed other countries such as China and Korea to steal valuable yards in the 5G race.

While specifics are relatively thin for the moment, the spectrum strategy might go some way to settle bickering in the industry. A good example is the battle between the autonomous vehicles camp, which is currently guarding largely unused spectrum reserved to allow vehicles to communicate, and telcos who want the assets opened up for wifi. This is only one example, but without a comprehensive, forward-looking, strategy in place, these arguments will not be settled.

Such a policy will provide much needed clarity in the industry, though six months is a long-time to wait with the 5G world fast approaching.

Indian government greenlights plan to increase broadband penetration

While Reliance Jio has been ripping up the rulebook, causing chaos in the Indian mobile market, some might be surprised to hear broadband penetration is still less than 10%.

Accessibility has long been an issue in India, from a mobile perspective Jio seems to have addressed this issue, though broadband remains an challenge. According to the latest subscription figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), there are currently 22.2 million broadband subscriptions in the country, compared to roughly 250 million households. This is one of the discrepancies being addressed by the National Digital Communications Policy – 2018.

According to the Indian Express, the government has officially given the green light for the policy, which aims to attract $100 billion investment and create an additional four million jobs in the digital communications sector. The ambitions and targets are certainly bold, though momentum is certainly with India.

In terms of the top-line objectives, there are six; provisioning broadband for all; creating the four million jobs; increasing the percentage digital communications contributes to GDP from 6% to 8%; taking India into the top 50 places in the ICT Development Index of ITU; ensuring digital sovereignty; enhancing India’s global contribution to the digital economy.

Looking specifically at the broadband side of things, by 2022 the Indian government hopes to enable fixed line broadband access to 50% of households across the country, 100 Mbps broadband on demand to all key development institutions, provide 10 Gbps connectivity to all Gram Panchayats of India. These ambitions will be realised through creating a ‘fibre first’ initiative, promoting collaboration models involving state, local bodies and private sector, as well as incentivising and promoting fibre connectivity for all new developmental construction.

The telcos will surely be rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the opportunity. Fixed broadband infrastructure is an expensive game, though love and care from the government, as well as subsidies and potential tax benefits, will certainly offer opportunity to deploy infrastructure, new customers and revenues. Over the next couple of months, the government will aim to create a National Digital Grid, through the establishment of the National Fibre Authority, building Common Service Ducts and utility corridors, facilitating development of Open Access Next Generation Networks, as well as standardising costs and timelines.

Broadband offers a significant opportunity for the telcos who have seen profit margins decimated by the entry of Reliance Jio. With such low broadband penetration, the land grab for customers will be a vicious one, though with higher ARPU the rewards are quite clear.

From a global perspective, increased broadband penetration will certainly offer India a greater opportunity to play a more notable role in the global marketplace. This is looking at the global question outwardly; there will be a number of international businesses keeping an eye on developments here. Should broadband accessibility increase, companies like Netflix will almost certainly be lining up new products and tariffs. This in turn will stimulate the Indian creative industry, as a cornerstone of the Netflix strategy is to create local content.

The mobile revolution kicked off by Jio’s disruptive pricing proved to be a catalyst for India in the international digital economy, though increasing broadband accessibility and penetration could have the same impact. India has been an interesting market over the last 12-18 months, and with broadband now being addressed, it has recaptured our attention.