Robert Cailliau

Angela’s European internet

Robert Cailliau Robert Cailliau est, avec Tim Berners-Lee, le cofondateur du worldwide web.

Ah. Angela wants a European Internet. This has probably to do with the hacking of her phone, the spying of the NSA, and maybe other worries (or intentions?).

Ah. Angela wants a European Internet. This has probably to do with the hacking of her phone, the spying of the NSA, and maybe other worries (or intentions?). Let’s first see what NSA stands for: it is the National Security Agency. Not of Germany or the EU: of the USA. Somehow when we say “NSA” the qualification “of the United States of America” seems unnecessary, like when we say “MI6” we all think “James Bond”. The mere observation that the NSA does not need a country qualification may already be sinister.

But as I wrote in December 2013 about the opinion Mr. Snowden voiced on internet spying, the problem is not with the intelligence agencies or the governments. It is with the neo-feudal behaviour of commercial companies.

In the good old days, before 1994, before the suits invaded the internet, any mail server would pass on messages to any destination. After that time commercial ISPs began to refuse to relay. The beginning of making money for the sake of making money on the internet.

Mind you, I have nothing against honest remuneration for services. But let’s come back to Angela and the European internet. What is the landscape?

Here are some factors I see:

electronic communication networks have become essential, people in general do not understand how they work, networks have a vast entertainment component, the boundary between the entertainment and serious use is fuzzy at best, there is no method of paying for information, income from information is derived mainly from advertising, language is a hard barrier in communication on the network.

Let’s examine these in some detail.
Electronic communication has become essential: where would we be without e-mail, mobile phones, web sites, positioning systems? Things would be much slower and much more local. But who controls them? The dependability of electronic communication is much in the hands of commercial companies, though they have in some cases an obligation to provide a basic service at all times (e.g. emergency calls on mobile phones). Is there any obligation on internet services? Why not?
Since most people are ignorant of simple electricity, we should perhaps not expect them to understand the fundamentals of communication networks. I have heard it said that for GPS(1) to work you have to be connected to the mobile phone network, or that the GPS system knows where you are. There is a big difference between knowing how to operate a facility and understanding how it works. Unfortunately this distinction is seldom made, and I often get operating instructions when I actually have asked for details about the underlying principles. This ignorance, and even more so the acceptance that this ignorance is normal, is greatly worrying.
The use of the net has a vast entertainment component. One might argue that this is what boosted the spread of the net: social sites(2) (Facebook), instant diffusion (Twitter), TV over fibre. Because these sites are not really networks, they can become successful only within a large language reservoir, and that means most of them grew profitable only inside the USA. They then spread globally, wiping out local systems where they existed, but are still controlled commercially, ethically and legally from the US.

The success of some of the entertainment sites put pressure on companies and governments to have a presence on these sites, in order to reach their clients and citizens. However, information diffusion activities are bound by effort and timing. It’s not easy to bring news on many channels at the same time. No wonder that some organisations gave up on maintaining their own sites. This is a slippery slope. Official news sites run with taxpayer’s money, such as the BBC, refuse access to certain services to connections from outside their country, but nevertheless happily require their readers to put comments on their Facebook page! What happens when Facebook decides to censor the BBC? Do people understand that commercial social sites are not a reliable, answerable service?

I have argued for a very long time in favour of micropayments as a way to pay for information. Micropayments do not imply an obligation to pay for any tidbit you read on the net, they simply provide one of the many possible means of remunerating the person who provides the information and make the reader more independent of the source. They are an instant and time-limited contract between the author and the reader: you want some info from a certain source, you pay them for it straight away. No subscriptions linking you in for a year, no passing over of private information, no intermediates. But as there are no micropayments, the only way to reach a broad audience instantly is to get the remuneration in a different way altogether: via advertising(3). This is a viscious triangle, where the advertiser, even unwillingly, puts the information provider under pressure: “offensive” or “inappropriate”(4) content is banned for fear of losing advertising revenue. The censoring is often done on the basis of the “value” system of the USA, other systems being ignored (until something bad happens). I am against all censoring, governments should not apply it, but commercial companies certainly should not.

So Angela wants a European Internet, or at least that is what I read in the press. I have the impression it is more a desire to get out from under the supremacy of the USA. That’s fine, we should all be as independent as possible. My arguments given above hopefully show that there were simple reasons for this supremacy, which unfortunately have little to do with any action on behalf of the US government, but rather follow from an evolution which could take place much more easily in the US than in Europe (or indeed any other region on Earth). The speed with which things spread on the net is very important to who gets the monopoly. That speed is controlled by the language shared by those who do the spreading, and that language happens to be English. Europe’s status on the network is a miracle, because even if it seems to lag, and if its weight is below that of the US in these matters, the levels of activity, awareness and inventiveness here are formidable in the light of the fact that we speak and think in so many different languages. We are a bunch of quarreling small nations, each one suspicious of its neighbours, but we seem to manage quite well.

That said, I think Angela is right, though I hope she has advisers who understand where the real problems lie and what real remedies could be. There should be more local control over the net, but that local control should not lead to breaking up the most important global system that Humankind has ever built.


1. GPS stands for “Global Positioning System”, the USA version of a way to determine longitude, latitude and altitude on the planet. Other similar systems are GLONASS (USSR/Russia), Compass and Galileo, the latter two under construction.
2. Facebook, Twitter, G+, and others are not networks as such, they are in fact huge sites, partly distributed, but logically behaving like giant single entities, with no real connections to entities outside.
3. It can however be argued that getting revenue from advertising instead of direct payments is a leveler: the rich buy more of the advertised products than the poor, so they indirectly give more money to the advertising budget.
4. I dislike the words “offensive” and “appropriate”, they are often euphemisms to cover the existence of a hidden agenda.

This article was first published on Robert Cailliau’s blog on

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