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EU approves regulation for ‘too big to care’ tech platforms

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The European Parliament has waved through the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, designed to curb the influence of US tech giants which it defines as ‘gatekeepers’.

The latest bureaucratic/legal phase of the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act – proposed legislation to regulate big tech firms primarily operating out of the US – has been passed, and will now be adopted by the bloc.

The two acts now seem to be bundled together under something called the Digital Services Package, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact they are both really about the same thing – articulating some rules to counter the power of firms like Facebook, Google and Apple to do more or less what they want. the EU is describing it as a ‘rulebook’ for online platforms which it says ‘will create a safer and more open digital space, grounded in respect for fundamental rights.’

It can all seem a bit vague on first inspection, but the EU has published quite a lot of material on the sort of things its going to start taking a judge’s hammer to by this point. The EU says the goals of the Digital Services Act are to:

  • Better protect consumers and their fundamental rights online
  • Establish a powerful transparency and a clear accountability framework for online platforms
  • Foster innovation, growth and competitiveness within the single market

Meanwhile the Digital Markets Acts is all around what ‘gatekeepers’, which is what it has chosen to collectively label the big tech firms, are and what they can and can’t do. It lists the benefits of its enforcement as:

  • Business users who depend on gatekeepers to offer their services in the single market will have a fairer business environment.
  • Innovators and technology start-ups will have new opportunities to compete and innovate in the online platform environment without having to comply with unfair terms and conditions limiting their development.
  • Consumers will have more and better services to choose from, more opportunities to switch their provider if they wish so, direct access to services, and fairer prices.
  • Gatekeepers will keep all opportunities to innovate and offer new services. They will simply not be allowed to use unfair practices towards the business users and customers that depend on them to gain an undue advantage.

“The European Parliament has adopted a global first: Strong, ambitious regulation of online platforms,” said Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for ‘a Europe Fit for the Digital Age’. “The Digital Services Act enables the protection of users’ rights online. The Digital Markets Act creates fair, open online markets. As an example, illegal hate speech can also be dealt with online. And products bought online must be safe. Big platforms will have to refrain from promoting their own interests, share their data with other businesses, enable more app stores. Because with size comes responsibility – as a big platform, there are things you must do and things you cannot do.”

Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton added: “Ten years ago, a page was turned on ‘too big to fail’ banks. Now — with DSA and DMA — we’re turning the page on ‘too big to care’ platforms. We are finally building a single digital market, the most important one in the ‘free world’. The same predictable rules will apply, everywhere in the EU, for our 450 million citizens, bringing everyone a safer and fairer digital space.”

The new rules will be enforced by the Commission for ‘the largest online platforms active in the EU.’ There are a few more steps for the legislators to complete however – the texts now have to be formally adopted by the Council of the European Union with a signature, after which they will be published in the Official Journal. Both acts will then enter into force 20 days after that, expected to be in the Autumn.

Many will have sympathy with the general idea of putting some sort of bulwark against the immense influence a few big Silicon Valley firms have come to have on societies around the world. But what enforcement looks like could probably take a thousand different forms – certainly what’s being discussed is far from the very specific demand it recently made that all electronics be USB-C compatible.

The complication of course is that none of the big tech firms are based in Europe – but that doesn’t mean the EU won’t be able to throw its weight behind forcing some changes as to how the firms operate within its borders, and the rules could even end up being a cudgel with which to batter them by proxy should their interests diverge on any given issue down the line – perhaps such as whether or not they should help fund the rollout of European internet infrastructure.

 

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