Reflections on EU’s Digital Week: Policy Makers Eye Next Stage of Internet Regulation

This week saw MEPs and Commission officials speaking openly on tech regulation at the European Parliament High Level Conference: Shaping our Digital Future. Matt Allison reflects on EU’s Digital Week.

Policy-makers in Brussels have more of a spring in their step these days, perhaps even the hint of a swagger. Several years ago, when MEPs were grappling with the sheer size and complexity of the General Data Protection Regulation, it was not uncommon to hear the assertion that policy-makers should not seek to create new rules governing the Internet because they could not “keep pace with innovation” and the rules would be outdated before they even came into effect.

That’s an opinion which is heard less and less in policy-making circles these days. The imprint of digital technologies on our lives has become too deep for politicians to plead ignorance, or warn of the unintended consequences of Internet regulation on online freedoms. Action needs to be taken, or at the very least be seen to be taken across of host of issues covering competition, copyright, privacy, and disinformation.

So it was no surprise this week to hear MEPs and Commission officials taking a hard line on tech regulation at the European Parliament High Level Conference: Shaping our Digital Future. Parliament President Antonio Tajani did not mince his words, calling in his opening remarks for robust digital competition rules to guarantee the effective functioning of the single market and arguing that online platforms should be responsible for the content they host. The subsequent message from France’s Digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi could not have been clearer: “We are not here to be passive, but will actively influence how digital sector develops”.

The same basic theme underpins the final round of legislative measures released under the Digital Single Market strategy by the European Commission this week. The hotly anticipated AI Communication seeks to create a competitive advantage for European AI innovation not by outgunning US or China in terms of cash, but by pursuing distinctly European, values-led approach to the development of AI, with the rights of the citizen front and centre.

This week also saw the release of a Regulation on Platform to Business trading practices, which seeks to give small businesses and sole traders more bargaining power when it comes to the intermediation services which act as a gateway to their customers – the 21st century shop window. The proposals (which were broadened at the request of Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to include Google search within their scope) have generated strong pushback from the platform industry. Their argument is that the mandatory new requirements for transparency and redress mechanisms here could override contractual freedoms.

To slightly less fanfare, the Commission also released a Communication on tackling disinformation online (a much more accurate, and less politically loaded term than the vastly abused and misused term “fake news”). The communication outlines a number of voluntary measures which online platforms should take to limit the amount of disinformation which reaches users. The proposals are a relatively light touch, and fall within the established mould of industry self-regulation which has been the preferred EU method of dealing with other forms of illegal or harmful content online (including hate speech, copyright infringing material and child abuse material).

The problem for the Commission is that these measures could be undermined by proposed action at the member state level. France, Germany and the UK have all made moves to introduce much tougher domestic laws which would require content removal within a set time period, with a strong sanctions regime in place to penalise non-compliance.

Either at the national or European level, the assertiveness of policy makers in their approach to Internet regulation is striking. The days of permissionless innovation look to be well in the past and – lest we forget – GDPR comes into force in less than a month.

Author: Matt Allison, Manager, Public Policy, Access Partnership

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