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EU takes on tech giants

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
December 16, 2020

The European Union has finally decided to hold internet companies responsible for their contents and to remove some of their absolute power over the market. DW’s Bernd Riegert predicts a long battle in the courts.

The EU takes on big tech
Image: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

As internet users, we have become used to much of its content and services being coming free. But what most of us don't realize is that there is a price: We do not pay in money, but in data. The European Commission has described the tech giants that mine our data to provide us with targeted advertising, products, and information and shape our view of reality as a source of risk. Some see them as villains more interested in making profit than offering us a romanticized idea of a democratic internet where freedom of speech is boundless.

But for these giants — Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Uber and co. — the internet is a resource, a factory, a channel of distribution. This is not objectionable as such, but it becomes a problem if these companies abuse their market power and unlimited access to consumer data.

So, the European Commission has decided to introduce a set of new digital laws and this is a good thing.

EU attempts to rein in Big Tech

If the proposals are written into law, the Commission will become a powerful supervisory authority that will attack the tech giants, which right now are predominantly US companies, to their core. In future, Google and its ilk might have to reveal how their algorithms scour our individual accounts and bombard us with commercials or information. This could rob them of the chance of putting forward their own services and products, and thus of huge profits.

The EU could revolutionize how Big Tech does business in Europe

The EU must be aware that the tech giants, some of whose economic power is larger than that of certain small European states, will not be pleased. There will be a long drawn-out legislative process and various battles with different lobbies that will do everything to resist change. So far, EU regulators have tried to rein in the power of the tech giants through fines and penalties, but to little avail. Companies would pay off their fines and maintain their monopolies by stifling the competition. Business as usual.

The EU aims to target the privileges that internet platforms have over the "real” world. So far, they have not been held responsible for pictures, videos or texts posted online. In contrast, more traditional media outlets are held accountable by press laws. If the law goes through, Facebook, Twitter and co. would be obliged to remove content deemed as terrorist or hate speech.

More monitoring and control

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DW's Bernd Riegert

However, though there will be more monitoring and more control, social media platforms will continue to enjoy certain privileges. It would be more consistent if they were treated as profit-making media companies, with the same responsibilities and rights.

Another proposal is to hold online traders such as Amazon or eBay responsible if they sell fake or unsafe goods through their platforms. It is about time. Every store in the EU is responsible for the goods that it sells.

The European Commission hopes to persuade tech giants to change their business models and give up their privileges. Though a digital revolution is long overdue, it should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Smaller, newer tech companies should be given the chance to come onto the market and have their goods and services positioned higher in search engines.

Moreover, Europe is not an isolated island, so the Commission will have to take into account that other laws and regulations will apply in America, Asia and elsewhere. The question of where global tech companies should be taxed remains unresolved.

This legislation is an opportunity for the EU. The rules that apply today were put in place 20 years ago when neither Facebook nor smartphones existed. In the future, the EU and its legislation needs to be more responsive and dynamic to the shifting landscape of tech.

Otherwise, as technology progresses — for example in the realms of AI, or the dark web — the EU could find itself legislatively unprepared, with an outdated and unregulated marketplace. This would lead the bloc to be outwitted by Big Tech. The EU is right to finally take on the digital economy, and not a moment too soon.


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union