Technology is increasingly seen as an essential component of our daily lives, and so too are the global tech companies ushering us into the digital age.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber and AirBnb are just a few of the companies shifting the way we use technology and, in turn, view the world. As they define this use, they can also determine how open these devices, products and services can be. Left unchecked, a lack of digital openness can have undesirable effects on competition and innovation.
There is no doubt that these tech giants, and many more like them, have contributed considerably to the communities they operate in. Google’s focus on renewable energy and community support – demonstrated well by the China Social Innovation Cup – and Facebook’s introduction of a ‘Donate Now’ button for charities, have achieved positive environmental and social outcomes worthy of high praise.
However, their market dominance gives them license to determine how open their digital products and services are, sometimes to the detriment of their own customers. The control that Apple and Google have over the smartphone market (with a combined market share of 97 percent), means they can limit their customers’ movements and choices. These limitations can, at times, even go against the company’s own policies, as evidenced in a recent report by the Mozilla Foundation.
We are starting to see more examples of this type of activity, in instances where app store owners have banned specific apps from appearing in their stores, sometimes even against their own pre-stated policies. The banned apps are ones that go against the commercial interests of the larger players, often because they were aimed at blocking online ads or offering apps for free or for reduced prices.
A specific example can be seen in Apple’s 2013 removal of French app AppGratis from its App Store. The move received significant attention, even prompting French Minister Fleur Pellerin to intervene. Other examples can be found on in Google Play blocking app Adblock Fast, or Apple’s deletion of the FreeWeibo app from its China App Store in 2014 – an app that had been nominated for a Digital Activism Award. Again, these are just a couple of the apps which have been banned on highly refutable grounds.
The challenge for these companies, policy makers and consumers alike is to remain mindful of making sure that technology and its possibilities remains open to everyone. We need to make sure that the digital world, increasingly pervasive, is also all-inclusive.
What’s important to remember is that a lack of openness is not inherently a technology issue. It’s hard to imagine a world in which you are unable to send an email or an SMS to another person, simply because he or she is using a different email service or mobile network. The reason why emails and SMS can be sent and received worldwide, regardless of the mobile operator or device, is that both are based on international and open standards, making them interoperable on a global scale.
The issue of how we best tackle the challenges of openness is a meaty one, to be sure, and being examined in detail in Telefonica’s upcoming Index on Digital Life – released later this month.
This index explores the important role the openness of technology plays in the road to achieving a better digital life and where it sits in the balance between digital access, confidence and entrepreneurship.
Early findings indicate that Canada, the UK, South Africa and Colombia are among the best over-performers when it comes to digital openness, relative to their GDP per capita. For us to continue making openness a priority, both industry and consumer-focused policies need to be championed to ensure healthy competition and universal appreciation of the power of digital technology.
In short, everyone deserves the right to enjoy the freedom to interconnect between digital services, to port their digital life and have transparent information about the services used, all of these enacting consumers to benefit from freedom of choice no matter where they live or what circumstances they find themselves in.