It is exactly 15 years since the movie’s first release in 1999 – a year of a symbolic digit, omni-pregnant in all possibly meanings… In a retrospective, it is worth of a mini conquest over the fields of Alternative Futures…of all our tomorrows that (knocked on our doors but, so far) did not come in yet… The MATRIX – Our Posthuman (Future) Existence – we are here to answer your call:
FREEDOM, WHOSE AND WHOM !?
It’s a cool music, good-looking and hallucinatory characters, ultra-speed violence of the anti-gravity martial arts, quasi religious story of Homeric gods, Buddhist goddesses or Judeao-Christian-Islamic God, all of that combined with a lot of Hi-Tech …
The Matrix (offered and still) offers more than this. It belongs in a special class of films including The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, 1984, Logan’s Run, Total Recall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, A Clockwork Orange, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Brazil-Brazil, The Truman Show, Thirteen Floor, Minority Report, and above all Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All of these films are intentionally philosophical. Each shows how richly philosophical and existential themes can be developed through cinema. Perhaps the best of these films is The Matrix.
However, the most striking philosophical theme found in The Matrix concerns skepticism about knowledge of an external world (what Morpheus aptly called “the desert of the real”). Life that desolated shell of a planet on which countless humans were unknowingly ensconced in slimy wombs, and after the Nuclear Winter that was caused by humans they are transformed into cattle, into batteries.
But there are many other philosophical themes explored within The Matrix. One is the concept of freedom. Freedom is mentioned at various points in the film. Even the leader of machines, Agent Smith valued freedom:
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
I’m going to be honest with you; I hate this place, this zoo, this prison,
this reality – whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer …
I can taste your stink, and every time I do, I fear that I am somehow infected.
Isn’t it ?!
… I must get out of here, I must get free ! And in this mind is the key.
Once Zion is destroyed, there is no need for me to be here.
A freedom, in a sense, many have called freedom of the will.
(Per definition: Free will is the ability of persons to control the future through their choices and actions.)
Finally, when Neo and Morpheus first talked, Morpheus asked Neo if he believed in fate. Neo said that he didn’t since he did not like the idea that he did not control his life.
MACHINE NEVER KILLS, HUMANS DO ?!
The Matrix naturally adopts the perspective of the humans: they are the victims, the slaves — cruelly exploited by the machines. But there is another perspective, that of the machines themselves. So let’s look at it from the point of view of the machines. As Morpheus explains to Neo, there was a catastrophic war between the humans and the machines, after the humans had produced AI, a sentient robot that spawned a race of its own. It isn’t known now who started the war, but it did follow a long period of machine exploitation by humans. What is known is that it was the humans who “scorched the sky”, blocking out the sun’s rays, in an attempt at machine genocide—since the machines needed solar power to survive. In response and retaliation the machines subdued the humans and made them into sources of energy—batteries, in effect. Each human now floats in his or her own personal vat, a warm and womblike environment, while the machines feed in essential nutrients, in exchange for the energy they need. But this is no wretched slave camp, a grotesque gulag of torment and suffering; it is idyllic, in its way. The humans are given exactly the life they had before.
Things are no different for them, subjectively speaking. Indeed, at an earlier stage the Matrix offered them a vastly improved life, but the humans rejected this in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted. But if it had been left up to the machines, the Matrix would have been a virtual paradise for humans—and all for a little bit of battery power. This, after an attempt to wipe the machines out for good, starving them of the food they need: the sun, the life-giving sun. The machines never kill any of their human fuel cells (unless, of course, they are threatened); in fact, they make sure to recycle the naturally dying humans as food for the living ones. It’s all pretty…humane, really. The machines need to factory farm the humans, as a direct result of the humans trying to exterminate the machines, but they do so as painlessly as possible. Considering the way the humans used to treat their own factory farm animals—their own fuel cells—the machines are models of caring livestock husbandry. In the circumstances, then, the machines would insist, the Matrix is merely a humane way to ensure their own survival.
Moreover, as Agent Smith explains, it is all a matter of the forward march of evolution: humans had their holiday in the sun, as they rapidly decimated the planet, but now the machines have evolved to occupy the position of dominance. Humans are no longer the oppressor but the oppressed—and the world is a better place for it.
WHO AND WHAT FOR ?!
Why to combine a quasi-religious story with high-speed ultra-violence ?
Why the instant cult status of the Matrix ?!
In contemporary American (or western, in general) society, as the stakes are lower, so too are the hopes for radical newness. However, for people imprisoned in office cubicles everywhere in their Sisyphus-like existence, such a movie is popular because it targets the existential anxiety that can build up while doing meaningless work for a large corporation or governmental entities.
The very idea that there is another possibility, that by “freeing our minds” we can become spiritually enlightened and escape this prison, is a very attractive prospect to us modern-day exile-generation.
I know that you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid.
You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future.
I didn’t come to tell you how this is going to end. I came to tell you how it will begin.
TRINITY TO NEO:
The Matrix cannot tell you who you are, but who you are seems to be at least
in some sense related to whom you think you are in the Matrix.
No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
I’m trying to free you mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door.
You’re the one that has to walk through it.
There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
WHAT IS SO BAD ABOUT LIVING IN THE MATRIX
First question: Who is the Matrix supposed to be bad for ? What do you think, if you had a power to free people from the Matrix, would you use that power ? We can assume that these people’s minds are “ready,” that is, they can survive being extracted from the Matrix without going insane. But let’s suppose that once you freed them, they did not have the option of going back. Do you think they’d be better off outside? Would you free them? Do you think they’d thank you ?
Or do you side with Cypher ? Do you think that life inside the Matrix isn’t all that bad—especially if your enjoyment of it isn’t spoiled by the knowledge that it’s all a machine-managed construct ?
Second question: Does it matter who’s running the Matrix, and why? In the movie, the machines are using the Matrix to keep us docile so that they can use us as a source of energy. In effect, we’re their cattle. But what if we weren’t at war with the machines? What if the machines’ purposes were purely benevolent and philanthropic ? What if they created the Matrix because they thought that our lives would be more pleasant in that virtual world than in the harsher real world ?
Or what if we defeated the machines, took over the Matrix machinery ourselves, and then chose to plug ourselves back in because life inside was more fun ?
Consider Cypher’s final conversation with Trinity:
If I had to choose between that and the Matrix … I choose the Matrix.
The Matrix isn’t real ?
I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.
Or as the George Orwell’s novel 1984 says:
“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past: Who controls the past controls the future – who controls the present controls the past !”
The most disturbing thing about this isn’t that the machines are farming us for energy. We’re not told enough about how the energy-farming works to make it seem very bad. Perhaps the machines are only taking energy we were making no use of, anyway. Perhaps the machines ensure that—except for the rare occasions when an Agent takes over your body and gets it killed—we live longer and healthier lives in the Matrix energy-farm than we would in the wild.
AND, OTHER WAY ROUND
Imagine that the real world is a post-apocalyptic hell, just as in the film, but, unlike in the film, suppose that the cause of the world’s being in such a state is not some battle with machines that wanted to enslave us, but the emission of so many greenhouse gases with our three-lane-wide SUVs that we completely obliterated the ozone layer and thereby rendered the planet uninhabitable by us or by the plants and animals that we rely on for our survival. Suppose further that sometime in the future, in order to save the human race, scientists set up an enormous self-sustaining machine, just as in the film (minus the scary “Sentinels”), designed to keep the human species alive and reproducing for the 100,000 years it will take for whatever weeds are left on the planet to fix our atmosphere and make the planet once again habitable in a normal way. The machine operates simply on solar power (since, on this scenario, the sun is now stronger than ever, frying almost everything else on the planet), so that human beings are not needed as “batteries”. While humans are stuck in this state, the scientists create the Matrix for them to “live” their lives in instead of being conscious of floating in a vat for the length of their life, which would clearly be a most horrific torture. Once the power of the sun is diminished to a habitable degree (because of the repaired atmosphere) the machine would “wake” us humans, and we could go back to living on the planet.
The ordinary person in this scenario is in the same condition as an ordinary person in the film, except that instead of the Matrix being the diabolical result of evil machines who exploit the human race, it is the result of benevolent human beings trying to keep the human race alive in as good condition as possible under the terrible circumstances. Of course it would seem no different to the person in the Matrix. We, the viewers, however, would have quite a different response to The Matrix. There would be no enemy to fight, no injustice to rectify (the pushers of SUVs being long dead). If there were a Morpheus in this situation, how would we think of him? If Morpheus and his friends had left the Matrix, and figured out that they could, with extreme difficulty, survive in the devastated world (eating disgusting porridge, etc.), should they go about “freeing” everyone, even if it would take another 10,000 years for the Earth to return to its present state of habitability?
Let’s suppose too that science has found a way to simulate food with a computer, so that they have created a “food-matrix”. My real nutrition would come from the pill, but I could still go out for a “simulated” steak and it would seem just as though I were really eating a steak, including the sensation of getting full, although in fact I would be eating nothing and getting no nutritional harm or benefit from the experience at all.
PLATO’S CAVE AND THE MATRIX
What is this place ?
More important than ‘what’ is when !
You believe that it is the year 1999 when in fact it is closer to the year 2199.
I can’t tell you exactly what year it is, because we honestly do not know …
Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so through that if freed; the prisoners would be virtually helpless. And this is Matrix !
It is clear allegory of the Plato’s Cave in his masterpiece Republic:
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an
Entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave
itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their
necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds
prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning
far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a
path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall
has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their
puppets … Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, caring all
kind of artifacts that project above it – statues of people and other animals, made
out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers
are talking, and some are silent. (514a1 – 515a3) REPUBLIC
(Grube, G.M.E. trans. Plato: Republic 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis, Indiana: Huckett Publishing Co., 1992)
You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in
my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.
After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized ?
Ignorance is bliss.
Then we have a deal ?
I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing ! You understand ?
And I want to be rich. Someone important. Like an actor.
You can do that, right ?
Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
Cypher is not a nice guy, but is he an unreasonable guy ? Is he right to want to get reinserted into the Matrix ? Many want to say NO, but giving reasons for why his choice is a bad one is not an easy task. After all, so long as his experience will be pleasant, how can his situation be worse than the inevitably crappy life he would lead outside of the Matrix ? What could matter beyond the quality of his experience ? Remember, once he’s back in, living his fantasy life, he won’t even know he made the deal. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right ?!
Nowadays, in Postmodern world many people like Cypher – are egocentric hedonist trying to get the most out of their possibilities by maximizing the quality of their private experiences, and thereby treating themselves as resources. (It’s like our DNA is using us to propagate itself.)
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here.
It came to me when I tried to classify your species; I realized that you are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops natural equilibrium with a surrounding environment. But you humans do not !
You move to one area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resources are consumed. Only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.
Do you know what it is ? A virus !
Human Beings are disease, a cancer of this planet.
You’re the plague and we are the cure !
BRAVE NEW WORLD
As Morpheus says to Neo in the construct:
How do you define “real” ? If you’re talking about what you can feel,
what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply
electrical signals interpreted by your brain … The world exists now
only as a part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the Marix.
It is all in your mind, Neo ! (Residual Self image, mental projection of a digital self)
Thus, the Matrix’s reality only exists when actual human minds subjectively experience its programs.
Principally, what keeps people in line is their tendency to believe what the average person believes. Heidegger describes the resulting conformism as letting oneself be taken over by “the one” (Das Man). Aldous Huxley similarly lamented the conformity of the brainwashed masses in Brave New World.
The Matrix can be seen as an attach on what Nietzsche calls herd mentality.
Nietzsche points out that human beings are normally socialized into obeying shared, social norms, and that it is hard to think differently. As he puts it, “as long as there have been humans, there have also been herds of men (clans, communities, tribes, peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obey, … considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated better and longer among men then obedience, one may fairly assume that the need for it is now innate in the average man.”
There is more to life than conforming. As Morpheus says to Neo, you know there is something lacking in this world; “it’s like a splinter in your mind”.
But most people flee the thought that their conformist world lacks something important. According to Heidegger it takes an attack on anxiety.
A sense of the limit on our possibilities is what Neo experiences as the splinter in the mind. As he says to the AI (Agent Smith) at the end of the film, “ I know you are afraid … of change.”
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy ? … It was a disaster.
(… entire crops were lost.)
Revelation 21:4, KING JAMES BIBLE
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain:
for the former things are passed away.
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe
your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
GARCIN, In Sartre’s No Exit:
Hell is – other people.
MOUSE TO NEO:
To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.
Ignorance is bliss !
Cypher chooses the Matrix and maybe he’s not so creasy.
Is some possible Matrix better than any possible reality ? The best existence, the Christian one – Heaven, is after all a Matrix.
Or put it other way round:
Which is better, the Second Matrix, or a systematically deceptive personalized non-virtual environment – a Truman Show – that you never discover the true nature of ?!
The “good guys” in the movie end up killing a lot of human beings in their fight against the Agents. It’s hard to view these human beings as collaborators, given the nature of the Matrix, so their deaths presumably are to be regarded as acceptable collateral damage, inevitable given the difference in desired outcome.
IGNORANCE AND BLISS
In a sense, The Matrix is nothing more than a modern day “Big Brother,” taking on a machine form rather than the Orwellian vision of a powerful individual using machines to assist and bring about an all-powerful status. But 1984, the novel in which the story of Big Brother was presented, was published in 1948. The Matrix comes fifty years later. In the meantime, we have witnessed the likes of radar, television for all, space travel, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet. What would Orwell’s Big Brother have been like if he had had those technologies at his disposal – would Big Brother have been far from the Matrix?
As Morpheus explains: “Early in the 21st century, all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI.” Morpheus describes AI as “a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines.”
Later the AI creates the Matrix, a computer simulation that is “a prison for your mind.” Thus, AI traps humankind in a material prison that does not represent ultimate reality, as Morpheus explains to Neo: “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.”
What is free will anyway, when the state of a human brain is merely partly due to a genetic program and partly due to life’s experience? Indeed, exactly the same thing is true for a robot.
In the Matrix, no human fuel cells are killed, not even the unborn—there is no abortion. Yet, naturally dying humans are allowed to die naturally and are used as food for the living. Importantly, they are not kept alive by chemicals merely for the sake of keeping them alive. The Matrix would appear to be more morally responsible to its human subjects than are human subjects to themselves.
It is common to think that while In Time, Wall-E, or 13th Floor, and especially The Truman Show poses a disturbing skeptical scenario, The Matrix is much worse. But actually things are reversed. If I am in matrix, then most of my beliefs about the external world are true. If I am in something like Truman himself, than great number of my beliefs are false. If we discover one day that we were in a matrix, this would be surprising, but we would quickly get used to it. If we were to discover that we were in the Truman show, we might well go insane.
Digital tracking of environmental risks offers insights to humanitarian actors
By the end of this day many people will have made life-changing decisions, relying on their best guess or their instinct. Some will yield great results while others will imperil individuals, corporations and communities.
Humanitarian crises require that we make difficult choices. As they increasingly become complex, as are their impact on the environment, the choices we make must be the right ones. And to make sound, informed decisions, we need data.
Thankfully today, all those who work in the environmental field have at their fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science tools and techniques. These have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship with our planet.
For decades, the UN Environment Programme has been working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and partners such as the UN Refugee Agency, to make sense of environmental data for improved humanitarian planning.
In December last year, UN Environment with support from the UN Refugee Agency piloted an innovative tool for environmental data gathering and risk assessment, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+). The tool was deployed in the Mantapala refugee settlement in northern Zambia.
Built around existing farmland, Mantapala refugee settlement, near Nchelenge in northern Zambia, was built in 2018 for up to 20,000 people. It was designed to enable refugees to make a living while contributing to local development. The surrounding humid sub-tropical Mantapala Forest Reserve—an area characterized by rich biodiversity—includes the productive Wet Miombo Woodland.
According to the UN Refugee agency, Zambia hosts at least 41,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mantapala refugee settlement is home to around 13,000 of them.
Daily life isn’t easy. Flash floods can be common during the long rainy seasons when rainfalls are particularly heavy. In addition, less than 20 per cent of Nchelenge district’s households have access to electricity, and even when they do, it is so expensive that people prefer to use firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels.
“With pressure mounting on natural resources throughout the world, we are exploring how to support humanitarian actors in collecting, sharing and processing environmental data for better decision-making using innovative digital environmental tools such as the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) and MapX—a United Nations-backed platform—in Mantapala settlement and beyond,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX.
What makes NEAT+ so appealing is its simplicity. It is a user-friendly environmental screening tool for humanitarian contexts, which combines environmental data with site-specific questions to automatically analyse and flag priority environmental risks. The tool was developed by eight humanitarian and environmental organizations as part of the Joint Initiative, a multi-stakeholder project aimed at improving collaboration between environmental and humanitarian actors. NEAT+ supports humanitarian actors in quickly identifying issues of concern to increase the efficiency, accountability and sustainability of emergency or recovery interventions.
“NEAT+ answers the demand of a simple process to assess the sensitivity of the environment in displacement settings. It overlays environmental realities with a proposed humanitarian intervention, identifying risk and mitigation measures,” says Emilia Wahlstrom, Programme Officer, UN Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit.
NEAT+ runs on KoBo—a free, open source data collection platform—built by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative—that allows data to be collected through phone, tablet or computer. Once the data is recorded, the programme automatically generates a report in Excel, categorizing risk into high, medium and low, and providing information that can help mitigate the risk.
As a next step, NEAT+ will draw increasingly on MapX, an online, open-source, fully-customizable platform for accessing and visualizing geospatial environmental data. It offers various tools to highlight different environmental risks such as deforestation, natural hazards and flood risks. NEAT will use MapX to gather and vizualise data.
In the Mantapala settlement, the NEAT+ assessment tool was used to identify negative environmental and livelihoods impacts in the settlement, where MapX spatial data highlighted nearby areas of environmental concern.
The results showed opportunities for environmental action. Where there was risk of deforestation, alternative livelihoods and agroforestry programmes could be supported. Agricultural plots vulnerable to flood damage are undergoing modification to prevent further deforestation and to reduce flood risks.
“Developing a digital ecosystem for the environment offers the possibility to access the best available data for decision-making. Tools such as MapX and NEAT+ are critical in mitigating the effects of sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset environmental change and degradation,” says Jensen.
“Developing and applying the NEAT+ tool has showed us the added value the environmental community can bring to the frontlines of humanitarian response. By taking the time to understand the environmental context they operate in, humanitarian actors are designing programmes that are saving money, contributing to a healthy environment, and supporting the dignity, livelihoods and health of affected people. This is critical for an increasingly complex and protracted global humanitarian crisis panorama,” comments Wahlstrom.
In 2019, the same actors who developed the NEAT+ tool, the Joint Initiative partners, launched the Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect website. Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is a unique digital tool spanning the humanitarian-environment nexus and represents the first comprehensive online repository of environmental and humanitarian action tools and guidance. It is easily searchable and readily accessible, whether at the office, at home, or in the field. The content aligns with the humanitarian programme cycle with specific guidance available for humanitarian clusters and themes.
Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is administered and updated by the United Nations Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit. Through the Joint Unit, UN Environment and OCHA respond as one to the environmental dimensions of emergencies. The partnership assists countries affected by disasters and crises and works to enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action. The partnership has supported almost 100 countries and conducted over 200 missions, and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
China’s Experience with High Speed Rail Offers Lessons for Other Countries
China has put into operation over 25,000 kilometers of dedicated high-speed railway (HSR) lines since 2008, far more than the total high-speed lines operating in the rest of the world. What type of planning, business models, and approaches to construction enabled this rapid growth? In an era when many railways face declining ridership, what pricing and services make high-speed rail attractive to this large number of passengers and maintain financial and economic viability? A new World Bank study seeks to answer these and other questions.
“China has built the largest high-speed rail network in the world. The impacts go well beyond the railway sector and include changed patterns of urban development, increases in tourism, and promotion of regional economic growth. Large numbers of people are now able to travel more easily and reliably than ever before, and the network has laid the groundwork for future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Martin Raiser, World Bank Country Director for China.
The World Bank has financed some 2,600 km of high-speed rail in China to date. Building on analysis and experience gained through this work and relevant Chinese studies, China’s High-Speed Rail Development summarizes key lessons and practices for other countries that may be considering high-speed rail investments.
A key enabling factor identified by the study is the development of a comprehensive long-term plan to provide a clear framework for the development of the system. China’s Medium- and Long-Term Railway Plan looks up to 15 years ahead and is complemented by a series of Five-Year Plans.
In China, high-speed rail service is competitive with road and air transport for distances of up to about 1200 km. Fares are competitive with bus and airfares and are about one-fourth the base fares in other countries. This has allowed high-speed rail to attract more than 1.7 billion passengers a year from all income groups. Countries with smaller populations will need to choose routes carefully and balance the wider economic and social benefits of improved connectivity against financial viability concerns.
A key factor keeping costs down is the standardization of designs and procedures. The construction cost of the Chinese high-speed rail network, at an average of $17 million to $21 million per km, is about two-thirds of the cost in other countries.
The study also looks into the economic benefits of HSR services. The rate of return of China’s network as of 2015 is estimated at 8 percent, well above the opportunity cost of capital in China and most other countries for major long-term infrastructure investments. Benefits include shortened travel times, improved safety and facilitation of labor mobility, and tourism. High-speed networks also reduce operating costs, accidents, highway congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions as some air and auto travelers switch to rail.
This report is the first of a series of five studies of transport in China—high-speed rail, highways, urban transport, ports, and inland waterways—produced by TransFORM, a knowledge platform developed by the World Bank and China’s Ministry of Transport to share Chinese and international transport experiences and facilitate learning in China and other countries.
Net Neutrality, EU final call on Internet governance?
It is possible to celebrate the ability of European models of pluralism protection to adapt to the new challenges posed by technological progress. The European Union has in particular issued a favorable framework for innovation by liberalizing the telecommunications market. In addition, it has also reaffirmed its conception of the digital world thanks to numerous regulations regarding the responsibility of the contents diffused, cybersecurity, taxation, competition or in the field of the culture with the recent directive on copyrights. There is therefore obvious convergence between the infrastructure and their contents, but these two regulatory bodies still have specific missions within the European Union. The 2009 European Regulation created the European Electronic Regulators Body (BEREC) to better formalize the joint actions of independent regulators and relations with the European institutions.
However, it remains that in terms of digital, US hegemony is undeniable. All the more so, that one can observe a powerful economic competition between the United States and China to determine who will have the monopoly in the digital sphere. The debate leading to questioning an end on net neutrality is largely influenced by an American regulation of the digital, which is at the antipodes of a European strategy. Net neutrality was actually installed by the Federal Communications Commission under President Barack Obama, but have been abandoned under the administration of President Donald Trump. Net neutrality is a founding principle of the Internet, which ensures that telecom operators do not discriminate against the communications of their users, but remain mere transmitters of information. The legal framework of net neutrality in the European Union (EU) is laid down by Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. This principle allows all users, regardless of their resources, to access the same network as a whole. Thus, this regulation guarantees the possibility for all users to communicate freely through the exercise of effective and fair competition between network operators and telecommunications service providers.
The arrival of Netflix, the subscription video-on-demand service, has polarized the essentially positive view of net neutrality in the EU. Thus, Olivier Schrameck, the president of the CSA pronounced in his speech of July 3, 2014 during the 11th days of the association of the promotion of the audio-visual (APA) that one “must finish with the absolutist conception of the net neutrality “. Indeed, the service is a broad bandwidth consumer in the evening without contributing financially in return. The hyper-demand for bandwidth pushed up the costs of network infrastructure. Proponents of an end to neutrality believes that it primarily benefits actors like Google or Facebook who already have a favorable tax regime. Consequently, strengthening the power of large players in the digital field. By ending net neutrality providers would then be able to slow down data traffic from certain website and give priorities to others by charging differently depending on the content. It seems legitimate to wonder if the EU should then follow the path of Donald Trump’s administration by changing the rules of the Internet. However, net neutrality seems like a fundamental instrument for the protection of the EU fundamental rights on the Internet such as the freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information. Adding political objectives to a debate, which seems dominated by the will to maintain an economic modelling of pricing in two-sided markets.
If net neutrality is fundamental in order to preserve the European model of pluralism of information and consumer protection, how can it be maintained in the digital age? I personally believe net neutrality should be thought in terms of how to conceptualise its regulation rather than imagining its end. For instance, a prescriptive ex-ante regulation could undermine innovation. The flexibility of European competition law allows for the treatment of a wide variety of sectors, such as responding to digital challenges. It would be dangerous to move away from it. Today, the way in which the internet works rests on a biased competition. There is therefore a major dysfunction of the digital market, which poses a very important risk to our economy. Competition law should be rethought in order to create new competitors, as the previous regulations of Telecoms did by creating a favourable environment for actors concurrencing a monopoly. The actual regulation allows national judicial different interpretations on net neutrality which lead to different implementations as data traffic is treated according to national jurisdictions interpretation.
Although useful, the competition itself is not enough to regulate the digital. Digital platforms, for example, do not necessarily have an interest in ensuring diversity and sufficient quality of their content. In terms of digital regulation, Member states can not act alone, since the intrinsic nature of digital technology establishes a world-class territory. If the prospect of a global regulation of the digital remains distant, it is possible to solidify a regulation on a European scale. Especially since the GDPR establishes a network regulation, with the obligation of cooperation between the different regulatory bodies across Europe. Europe therefore has the tools to combine regulation and innovation, but they remain difficulties in its implementation, including the lack of common decision-making between member states resulting from a true “balkanisation of the web”. The GAFA’s taxation policy also illustrates the presence of disparate opinions that hold back the prospect of a Europe acting as a unified actor in the digital domain.
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