Liberty Global: Europe's 'Big Data' Rules Favor Internet Giants

Europe's biggest cable company expresses frustration that light-touch regulation of Google and Facebook gives them an advantage in the market for some digital services.

Iain Morris, International Editor

September 13, 2017

4 Min Read
Liberty Global: Europe's 'Big Data' Rules Favor Internet Giants

LONDON -- Ovum Digital Futures 2017 -- Europe's strict regulation of network operators stops them from launching the same services that Internet giants such as Google and Facebook can provide, a senior executive for the region's biggest cable operator told attendees at a conference in London on Tuesday.

Stringent oversight of the region's operators means they cannot use the data they store about customers in the same way as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Facebook, said Jim Ryan, the chief strategy officer for Liberty Global, during a panel discussion at the Digital Futures 2017 conference hosted by analyst firm Ovum.

"One frustration that network operators have is that services are increasingly about big data, and regulation will have a massive impact on how quickly that develops," Ryan told conference attendees. "We get frustrated as network infrastructure players because we can't mine the same data as Google and Facebook."

The remarks from the Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY) executive reflect growing irritation among European telcos and cable operators that Internet companies are not bound by the same rules as the region's infrastructure players.

Having already seen Internet companies chew into revenues from voice calls and text messaging, operators such as Liberty Global -- which owns the UK's Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) along with a number of other European cable companies -- fear missing out on lucrative new service opportunities due to adverse regulation.

Both Google and Facebook hold vast repositories of customer data, which they have turned to their commercial advantage through online advertising deals.

By similarly "mining" data about customer behavior, an operator could provide more tailored recommendations to individual customers and also pursue deals with advertising companies.

Yet the current regulatory environment leaves the network operators at a distinct disadvantage in the market for new digital offerings based on such "big data," says James Crawshaw, a senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group.

Richard Mahony, the Ovum Ltd. research director, is in broad agreement: "We heard this morning that operators are regulated very differently from Internet players and that doesn't seem to be a balanced relationship," he said during an afternoon panel session at the Ovum event. "

Mahony said there is growing pressure on regulatory authorities to address this issue and ensure there is a "level playing field" between network operators and Internet companies.

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Rob Gallagher, who leads Ovum's research on digital consumer services, believes Europe's regulators may have some wariness about regulating Internet companies as strictly as network operators while they try to foster a climate of technology innovation in the absence of home-grown digital champions.

"Europe is suffering in terms of innovation, which is migrating to the US and China, and governments want to stimulate investment," he said on the same panel session as Mahoney.

Players such as Google and Facebook have previously been able to evade regulation by presenting themselves as mere information conduits, arguing they cannot police and act on the abuse of the digital tools they provide, said Gallagher.

But their expertise in designing algorithms for mining data means this argument is wearing thin, according to Gallagher, who says there is a growing recognition among Internet companies of the need for change.

"Platforms realize they have to do something about this because if they let the world burn around them they will just be kings of the ashes," he said.

Liberty Global's Ryan also expressed some optimism that conditions will become fairer. "Technology firms will have to take more responsibility for what they are allowing people to access and that could have an impact on how advertising gets traded," he said.

Along with other network operators in the region, Liberty Global generates the bulk of its revenues from subscriptions to its broadband and TV services, but Ryan hints that advertisers are queuing up to sign deals with it.

"We have a strong relationship with households and there are so many advertisers that would love to get into our subscription model," he said.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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