If we are dispossessed of our free will without even being aware of it or immediately feeling its effects, it is because the digital companies know how to "nudge" people, that is to say to create incentives, architectures of choices that give us the impression of choosing but actually give us a direction. This capacity received lots of promotion since the Nobel Prize was granted to Richard Thaler in 2017.
Nudge also known as "libertarian paternalism" is not good or evil in itself. The problem arises when it serves corporatist purposes, lucrative or that are not in the interest of all. Then we find ourselves the slaves of a few. We become a commodity exchanged in "free" environment.
In line with Richard Thaler's thinking, I argue that regulators must become architects of choice too, to ensure that our collective values and principles are guaranteed.
This requires new thinking and tools. At Arcep, the French telecom Regulator, we believe in regulating with data. We launched a specific program, which uses the power of information to steer the market in the right direction.
Regulating with data
Arcep's program relies on three main projects.
(i) Warning system: Get an intimate knowledge of the user experience through the "J'alerte l'Arcep"
The online platform "J'alerte l'Arcep" allows every user, whether it is an individual, a company or a community, to alert Arcep of the problems they encountered in their relations with fixed, mobile, internet and postal operators.
Through their contribution, citizens have the opportunity to weigh their experience in regulating the market, to encourage operators to improve their services and develop their networks. Advice from Arcep is also offered.
(ii) "Data unbundling": extracts from operators comparable information on coverage and quality of mobile networks and provide it to consumers
Arcep is developing an enriched information approach to enable all users to make more informed choices; whether it is consumers - especially when choosing their fixed or mobile operator - or public decision-makers and especially local authorities. Through these tools, Arcep intends to create a "transparency shock" and stimulate operators' investments to further boost their deployments and improve the quality of their services.
For this, the Authority proceeds to "data unbundling" by requiring operators to publish more complete data. These data can be supplemented with data produced by Arcep and are then made available in an open format to the public in two complementary forms: platforms for the general public or observers ("Monreseaumobile.fr" and "cartefibre.arcep.fr" sites.), and in open data (on" data.gouv.fr ").
(iii) Comparison tools and crowdsourcing: Strengthening of the reliability of crowdsourcing and comparison tools used by consumers, through the animation of an ecosystem
Arcep has embarked on a crowdsourcing approach with a range of third-party players, be they application editors, users' protection actors, or actors from the transport, real estate and tourism sectors.
To monitor the quality of service and the coverage of telecom networks, fixed or mobile, for example, Arcep has initiated a partnership approach to facilitate the opening of data and increasingly reliable and representative measures of user usage.
What's the philosophy behind? Enabling a distributed regulation
Regulating with data supposes to recognize that the State does not have the monopoly of the general interest. Regulators have to leave from their zone of comfort. Each actor, each user can take part in the defence of the general interest and each citizen is put in capacity to become a micro-regulator. However, it is up to the regulator to propose an ambition and to define a strategy with a clear intention.
As a public authority we must help citizens to enable them to make choices that direct society towards what is good for us as an individual but also as a collective. This is the role of the public authority tomorrow. It is therefore a major inversion since it amounts to serving the citizen while turning them into "small regulators".
How could we go further? Regulating with "bots"
Regulating with data may not be enough. To truly empower citizens, we must not only reposition ourselves as a public authority, we must also reverse the relationship between the individual and the platforms. This is precisely the meaning of the idea developed for ingeniously by Albert Wenger, namely to be represented on platforms by... a bot.
The concept is actually to enable end-users to use bots to interact with the platforms. A bot, that is to say a piece of software that will be configured and mandated by the user to deal with the complexity of online service providers. This already exists: for instance when you parameter how far to bid in an auction on eBay or Google Adwords.
But today this possibility is only offered in a limited number of situations and under the control of the online service. With a real right to be represented by a bot it means that the online services have to accept the interaction, meaning open their APIs in the appropriate way. Applications are infinite. For instance, this would allow being present over several platforms at the same time. This would be quite profitable for us but also for the drivers or delivery persons who can choose the platforms that best suit their interest. They can be present on these platforms simultaneously, without having to choose only one of them nor to support the complexity of the multi-homing.
What is at the core of this idea is to give a real choosing power to the end-user. This may help in many domains, like privacy but also competition and help to redistribute the networks effects. That may be a beautiful initiative. Of course this proposal raises many questions of feasibility and legal framework. But still it may be worth to work on it. Technologies can help us in this. And so find back their liberating impulse.