EU flexes muscle towards huge tech ‘gatekeepers’

The EU wants to set strict conditions for internet giants to do business in the bloc’s 27 countries

US tech giants like Facebook and Google face unprecedented regulation in Europe as the EU prepares to publish landmark proposals that could change the face of online life.

The EU wants the Digital Services Act and its associated Digital Markets Act to set strict conditions for the business of internet giants in the bloc’s 27 countries.

The largest tech firms will be named internet gatekeepers, subject to specific rules, in a proposal presented on Tuesday by EU Vice-President Margrethe Vestager and Commissioner Thierry Breton.

Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, and perhaps a few others, will almost certainly be beaten with the label, which could be compared to large banks that are considered “too big to fail” and are subject to special oversight.

“We have come to a point where the power of digital companies – especially the biggest gatekeepers – threatens our freedoms, our opportunities and even our democracy,” said Vestager.

“For the greatest goalkeepers in the world, things have to change. They have to take on more responsibility.”

The proposals will go through a long and complex ratification process, with the 27 EU Member States, the European Parliament and a lobby frenzy from business and trade associations influencing the final law.

France and the Netherlands have already spoken out in favor of Europe having all means to contain the gatekeepers, including the power to break them open.

“Dull and rigid”

Unsurprisingly, Big Tech is asking for moderation and wants companies to be judged not just on their size.

“What we might end up with would be blunt and strict rules aimed at size rather than problematic behavior,” said Kayvan Hazemi-Jebelli, an expert at the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a major tech lobby group.

For the past decade, the EU has taken the global lead in trying to grapple with the insurmountable power of big tech and impose billions of antitrust fines on Google. However, critics believe the method did little to change their behavior.

The EU has also ordered Apple to pay billions of euros in taxes to Ireland. However, this decision was overturned by the EU Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the US authorities have answered the call and are rethinking the role of big tech themselves. Google has been scrutinizing several major antitrust cases, in addition to a legal offer to rid Facebook of its Instagram and WhatsApp products.

The details of the proposal have been carefully monitored by the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, although some details have been leaked.

What is certain is that gatekeepers are faced with purpose-built advantages and disadvantages, which can include a ban on companies from prioritizing their own services on their platforms or chasing away rivals by exploiting data that others cannot access.

“Control their Power”

The Digital Services Act is expected to give the Commission firmer teeth in tracking social media platforms for allowing illegal content online, with the power to fines possibly through a newly created EU authority instead of the current voluntary one System to impose.

Technology giants will be especially vigilant to maintain their indemnity for illegal content on their platforms. This status preserves freedom of speech as it prevents over-enforcement and creates fertile ground for the innovation that sparked the internet revolution.

The proposal may not go so far as to lift this exemption, but it will significantly increase the platform’s responsibility by setting clear rules and incentives for ad transparency and online information.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft fear measures that would set a precedent in the rest of the world and call into question the way they work, says Alexandre de Streel, co-director of the think tank center for regulation in Europe (Cerre).

“For the first time, we would have asymmetrical regulation that would only focus on the big players,” he told AFP. “We will make rules to control their power.”

Five things you should know about the EU tech rules revolution

© 2020 AFP

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