Minitel and the French Internet: Path Dependence?
43 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2012
Date Written: September 2009
Ten years before the invention of the Web and the popularization of the Internet, the French Minitel communication network was launched, about to become what the French saw as a success story with 6.5 million terminals, 90 million hours of connection per year, and almost a 50% penetration rate amongst the working population at its peak in 1993, not counting access available in all French post offices. In the French view, the product was a great economic and industrial success, as the French telephone network had been entirely digitized in the process and the government and content providers derived much revenue from costly online services – FF 1bn in 1992 alone. In 1992, France had one of the most up-to-date telecommunications networks in the world and was arguably the world’s most wired country as far as computer networks were concerned. On the other hand, and setting aside the fact that the French government never managed to achieve success in exporting the system, certain foreign critics suggested that the experience was a failure because, they argued, it set up technological and economic schemes that made it harder to move on once the World Wide Web was introduced, which eventually impaired the development of the Internet in France. In the United States, Eli Noam dubbed Minitel a “technologically backward system.”
This article argues that despite suggestions to the contrary, the Minitel experience did not create technological or economic path dependence that would have impaired the development of the French internet. I further argue, on the other hand, that from the regulatory policy standpoint, the Minitel experience did set the path for models of censorship by proxy which are the future of Internet regulation worldwide, therefore making the experience a “success” in the view of censors.
Part I presents a brief history of the system and provides technical background. Part II describes the Minitel’s economic model and history. Part III addresses arguments that concluded to an overall lack of success of the system and that suggested that the Minitel experience did give rise to path dependence and impaired the technological and economic development of the Internet in France.
Conversely, I also address arguments that suggest that the Minitel was in fact an Internet catalyst because the French were ready to capitalize on ten years of experience in online commerce as soon as the World Wide Web was introduced. In Part IV, I analyze Internet penetration data from the International Telecommunication Union, and conclude that the Minitel experience did jump-start the development of the French Internet compared to other European countries, but that this early positive impact was short-lived and did not produce long-lasting effects. In Part V, I argue, on the other hand, that there exists a clear form of path dependence in that the Minitel regulatory system provided a long-lasting inspiration to French Internet regulators. I argue that short of being a “technologically backward system,” the Minitel architecture, featuring a centralized packet-switching network, sadly set the path for the future of internet regulation worldwide.
Keywords: Minitel, Internet, France, Path Dependence
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