Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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Democratic Spaces and Telecommunications Infrastructure: Internet Operators as Political Figures


When it comes to the Internet, we usually only consider the end points: the quality of the network picked up by our smartphones, for example, or how good the wifi in our home. We have gotten used to thinking of the Internet as something ethereal: something that floats in the air in MacDonald’s restaurants, on campuses and in our flats.

Having been active for several years now in nonprofit organisations that are also acting as Internet operators, I have gotten used to seeing, on a daily basis, everything that comes after the end point: people hardly suspect how many people have been working, at different levels, to ensure that the wifi in their flat works well.

The Internet is, before anything else, an infrastructure – one that ends with the box in our living room – which is made up of copper cables (those of telephone wires, used for ADSL), optical fibre, machines called routers to manage the data flow, antennas of various shapes, poles and cabinets. These are all very material, very concrete things that need to be maintained.

That is what I want to talk about in this article. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about platforms, because it’s in the news. But, in order to reflect adequately on democracy and networks, it seems to me that we must also look at what connects us to these platforms. There has been tension between telecommunications and democracy for at least ten years. So, for once, I’m going to let cables and antennas – not Facebook – steal the show.

Transmission timing : learning to weld optical fibre. General Assembly of the FDN 2017. Credit : zorun CC-BY-SA.

The infrastructure I’m talking about has a distinctive feature which makes me even more attached to and appreciative of the postal and telecommunication services of old: it is a decentralised infrastructure. In other words, there is not one Internet, but rather several different networks. Each operator is responsible for a telecommunications network, which it is in charge of maintaining and connecting to other telecommunications networks. When you connect to the Internet via your Internet Service Provider (ISP), you have access to that operator’s network, and then, potentially, to that of all your neighbours, and then to that of your neighbours’ neighbours, etc. And yet, most of the time, it works. No one is responsible for the entire Internet, no one tracks the data from the beginning to end, and yet most of the time, we manage to get them through without any problems. The postal service these days is not performing as well...

It is precisely this feature that gives the Internet its great resilience. It is because there is no central root of the Internet that it is difficult to control what each operator does with the data. This is a feature of the Internet that has caused a great deal of debate, especially amongst governments, which are making tremendous efforts to put regulations on a space for expression that structurally escapes them. Indeed, the Internet constitutes a space where divergent voices can emerge (Boullier, 2017), which challenges the legitimacy of the state and its own discourse. The state is angry at no longer being the only one with a voice.

And so governments are seeking to control and monitor everything that might represent “bad talk”, with the same concern as Louis XVI when he was confronted with the circulation of “hand-to-hand news”. [1] My reference to Arlette Farge’s work is deliberate: this is not unique to the Internet. The Internet is a huge mouthpiece for “bad talk”. Nowadays, what used to be said in cafés and on flyers is said on Facebook pages and blogs. Just as “hand-to-hand news” was hunted down and spied upon by a worried state authority, so the Internet has been from the beginning, just as the telephone was before it. Price (2013) has shown that the US government has been seeking to develop techniques to monitor networks since the early 20th century, and to make this surveillance socially acceptable. In France, a great many new laws pertaining to the Internet have been established over at least the last decade. More recently, Félix Tréguer (2020) shed light on the close collaboration of governments and Silicon Valley on censorship.

We can’t say that they won, because it’s not quite true: the Streisand effect, [2] now well documented, suggests that the suppression of any content on the Internet is always temporary. The use of end-to-end encryption technologies by a growing number of people – such as the many new users of Signal [3] – is to be welcomed. On the Internet, there is always a way out of censorship and surveillance.

But we can’t say that they are losing either. And this is why we talk about a shrinking democratic space. I see two ways of defining “democratic space” in this context: on the one hand, a space (if we follow the topographical analogy, which is not always an apt way of describing the Internet) where democracy is played out, i.e, where citizens take charge of public affairs and decide on their fate together. On the other hand, and this may be connected to the latter though not necessarily, a space where “bad talk” can flourish, words and voices that question power, challenge it and force it to be accountable. These voices are crucial, because they put the leaders of a representative democracy in a position where they are indeed the recipients of a delegation of power: if they abuse their power, the people are entitled to withdraw the delegation. “Bad talk” puts power under the scrutiny of the people – the legitimate holders of power. It’s easy to see why a king, whose power was only supposed to come from divine attribution, was worried. And he was right to be; it was indeed these voices that enabled the people to take its fate into its own hands a few years later. In a healthy representative democracy, leaders are always in the hot seat. It might not be comfortable, but it is healthy.

What are we seeing in 2021, and more importantly, what does the telecommunications network infrastructure have to do with it?

As the Internet is incredibly effective at circulating information and connecting people from opposite ends of the earth, it has quickly become a key tool for making use of some of our fundamental freedoms (freedom of information, freedom of expression). As the Constitutional Council declared in France in 2009: “Freedom of communication and expression, set out in Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, has been constantly protected by the Constitutional Council’s jurisprudence (see the latest decision No. 2009-577 DC of 3 March 2009). Nowadays, in view of the widespread development of the Internet and its importance in regards to participation in democratic life and the expression of ideas and opinions, this freedom also includes the freedom to access these online public communication services.”

This gives operators, and ISPs in particular, an enormous responsibility: that of protecting those freedoms. We have to go through an ISP to access the Internet. But large operators are corporations, driven by their shareholders. Paying out dividends and protecting fundamental freedoms has never worked very well together.

This results in major operators abusing their power, because it pays off more in the short term: for example, through the concentration of media outlets and Internet operators in the same corporate groups (Bénilde, 2016). ISP subscribers are then offered preferential access to the media owned by the same corporation, introducing a bias in their choice of sources of information. A few years ago, it turned out that some ISPs were slowing down connections to Skype, which was in direct competition with their own voice call offers. It should be up to the end-user, the citizen, to independently choose what sources of information he or she uses, how he or she expresses him or herself, and how he or she communicates with others. His or her responsibility as an adult citizen is the very foundation of a democracy: [4] if we have to decide for him or her (as we might do for children), we cannot let him or her take care of public affairs.

This could be a basic definition of net neutrality: guaranteeing that citizens can enjoy their freedom of expression and information on the Internet without constraints.

Another irritating thing about these corporations is that they tend to (one could almost say it’s a natural inclination) constitute local monopolies. Rolling out and maintaining telecommunications infrastructure requires large investments, and unfortunately, tends to return profits only over the long term. As we’ve had the rich idea, here as in other countries, of privatising the whole thing, it will be the largest operators (those with the largest investment capacity) who will pull the cables and lay the antennas in any given area. On a European scale, and even on a national scale, the Internet is always decentralised: there are always several interconnected networks. On a regional scale, this is not necessarily the case: as a given infrastructure loses value when there are competing infrastructures in the same area, operators tend to concentrate rather than multiply.

This natural tendency towards a monopoly has two unfortunate consequences. I will start with perhaps the less obvious one. In the United States, where the best one can generally hope for is a duopoly, the situation is terrible: the operator, as a local monopoly or quasi-monopoly, is able to set its own terms and rates for Internet access. And since the maintenance of cables and machines is expensive and doesn’t bring any short-term profit, it often gets postponed: the network deteriorates as does the quality of the service.

To return to the issue of democracy, if citizens wish to access “bad talk” – whether this be investigative journalists exposing corruption, or an individual reading different opinions and posting one’s own opinion on a blog – they will first have to pay, and pay dearly, for a mediocre service. One could speak of “censitary access” to democratic rights, just as one talks of “censitary suffrage” when only those who have enough money or assets can vote.

Moreover, without legal obligations, operators will only roll out their infrastructure in areas where it will be profitable over the short term: in the densest city areas. This is what is called the “digital divide”. In France, we have the concept of a universal public service, which forces the operator responsible for it (in this case Orange, heir to the late France Télécom) to maintain the telephone network (which is used for ADSL). Since the withdrawal of Title II, [5] this concept no longer exists in the United States. So the situation is less problematic in France, even if the digital divide still clearly exists here. The France THD Plan is an attempt to bridge this divide. In some regions, depending on the work plan agreed with local authorities, it results in a somewhat “patchy” roll-out: first concentrated in urban centres, with a second phase covering outlying areas.

It seems to me that if people are unable to exercise their rights and freedoms because it is too expensive to roll out in your area right now, this constitutes an infringement of these rights and freedoms. You cannot participate in the public space if you are unable to access it. It is a right, full stop. We cannot have some citizens who have priority access to the democratic space and others who remain at the end of the line, simply because they live in the countryside.

Another consequence of a monopoly is the risk of collusion with power. From an economic point of view, a monopoly is very bad for the market as a whole (it suffocates it, it benefits only the dominant player, even consumers don’t benefit from it, for the reasons mentioned above). This is why there are are a number of regulations that aim to prevent monopolies. From a political point of view, however, a monopoly is very convenient. Let’s not kid ourselves: having a market with only three or four dominant operators makes censorship much easier. Operators who are already dominant naturally tend to consolidate their domination; and this is convenient for state authorities, resulting in a strong risk of collusion.

Tunisia provides the most extreme example of this type of arrangement: under Ben Ali, the Internet was extensively monitored and censored. This was made easier by the fact there was only one ISP for the whole country. But the Internet is decentralised. News that can’t be read in Tunisia can be read in France. It didn’t take long for Tunisians to find a way around it, which reminds us that any effort at censorship and surveillance is like a game of cat and mouse. They never quite manage to win. Huge platforms like Facebook or Google have further complicated matters, because they have led to a recentralisation not only of the Web, but also, in certain cases, of the infrastructure as well. I wanted to shift the focus away from platforms, which are already widely discussed, and draw attention to these other equilibriums, trends and fundamental shifts. Posting your messages on Mastodon instead of Twitter is a first step out of the clutches of Big Tech. But if we don’t have any choice in Internet provider, nor any guarantee that it will maintain this now essential infrastructure and remain independent from political influence, any democratic space that that we could create by abandoning the big platforms will remain vulnerable.

This is why it is so important that there are operators that are not private companies, but are associations or non-profit organisations, such as those of the FDN Federation. It is an important way to reclaim part of the infrastructure, by giving the organisation’s members control over it. In addition, it is a democratic space, in the other sense of the word: a space for discussion, where decisions are made collectively and where we effectively and concretely take care of the public space. These organisations are all the more important in an increasingly concentrated market. They are also living proof that it is possible to care for telecoms as a commons, not simply as an object of trade.

The conclusion that I would like to draw from all this is that as long as we think of telecoms, and of the regulatory remedies that we apply to the telecoms market, in strictly economic terms, we’ll find that there is something missing. Communication between people, being informed, discussing information – all this is too important to a healthy democracy to be dealt with from the sole perspective of economic regulation. All telecommunications operators – not only those who see themselves as such, (i.e., members of the FDN Federation) – play a political role. Every decision they make impacts how we connect to information, and how we choose to discuss it. Recent and not-so-recent developments around big platforms have shown that the decisions made by some economic players can have a serious impact on the health of our democracies. The same goes for Internet operators! They are in charge of the network that holds the “foam of the territory” together, to end on the words of Boullier. And this is not insignificant. We must think of them as political figures, with all the responsibilities such a role entails.