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EU’s new digital strategy targets data-hoarding tech firms

share and share alike — The ambitious framework puts a target on all the biggest US Big Tech players. Kate Cox – Feb 20, 2020 6:51 pm UTC Enlarge / European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launching “A Europe fit for the Digital Age” initiative at a press conference on February 19, 2020 in…

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The ambitious framework puts a target on all the biggest US Big Tech players.


Enlarge / European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launching “A Europe fit for the Digital Age” initiative at a press conference on February 19, 2020 in Brussels.

A comprehensive new grand strategy for handling European regulation in the “Digital Age” seeks to thread the technological needle, mitigating the harms of the information era—such as fraud, misinformation, and loss of privacy—while still reaping the benefits. The proposed plan, as released by the European Commission this week, names no names but still makes quite clear that the biggest US tech titans—especially Facebook and Google—would be squarely in the sights of any new legislation.

The data strategy plan (PDF) is just that: a plan, not a piece of legislation. As such, it’s chock-full of aspirational language and lofty goals and relatively low on details. Its structure, however, lays out a clear framework for how the EU intends to approach data going forward.

The core idea is to make the treatment of data more universal and less segmented. One piece of legislation EU leaders plan to put forward later this year would “facilitate cross-border data use and prioritize interoperability requirements and standards within and across sectors,” for example.

The new proposals dovetail into Europe’s previous stab at broad, universal data regulation, the General Data Protection Regulation, which the European Parliament agreed upon in 2016. The law, which went into effect in May, 2018, attempts to give EU citizens better control—or at least awareness—of the collection and use of their personal data.

The proposed framework would seek to support “voluntary” data-sharing, in compliance with the GDPR, including “data altruism,” where individuals can grant permission for their information to be used “for the public good.” It would also include mandates supporting “business-to-business data-sharing,” especially in industrial settings, and tackle APIs and other interoperability issues that businesses use to keep data proprietary. Future legislation could also “provide incentives” to increase business-to-business and business-to-government data sharing.

“Only where specific circumstances dictate,” the plan says, “access to data should be made compulsory, where appropriate under fair, transparent, reasonable, proportionate, and/or non-discriminatory conditions.”

The plan specifically calls out “imbalances in market power” as one reason to change the way data are managed. There are “market imbalances in relation to access to and use of data,” the plan reads, all but calling out Facebook and Google by name:

There are also market imbalances in relation to access to and use of data… A case in point comes from large online platforms, where a small number of players may accumulate large amounts of data, gathering important insights and competitive advantages from the richness and variety of the data they hold.

This can affect, in turn, the contestability of markets in specific cases—not only the market for such platform services, but also the various specific markets for goods and services served by the platform, in particular if the platform is itself active on such related markets.

The market power provided by the “data advantage” allows a handful of large players to “unilaterally impose conditions for access and use of data,” or unfairly leverage that advantage to break into new markets, the document adds.

Europe’s interest in reining in Big Tech from its perceived excesses is not new. The European Commission’s competition bureau, headed by commissioner Margarethe Vestager, has in the past five years launched a series of probes into Alphabet (Google), Amazon, and others to determine if their uses of data violate EU antitrust law. Vestager was on stage for the announcement to praise the benefits of a unified data market for European competitors to be able to catch up to their US and China rivals.

The set of proposals are likely not what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hoping to hear when he visited EU lawmakers in Brussels earlier in the week. In a Financial Times op-ed ahead of his trip, Zuckerberg took a theoretically pro-regulation position, while also arguing that mandating data portability could itself prove a challenge to user privacy.

Making any of these grand proposals into law, of course, will be a long and messy process. The EU, post-Brexit, has 27 member states, and every one of them will have its own needs, concerns, and preferences to take into account. For now, the Commission is accepting public comment on its white paper on artificial intelligence and expects to begin introducing draft legislation in late 2020 and into 2021.

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