We must tear down the walls of big technology

BRUSSELS – In the coming months, new laws will be enacted in Europe – the first of their kind in the world – to make big technology companies assume their responsibility before the societies where they operate and do business. We have all heard about the dangers that large online platforms pose to our lives, our democracies, the mental health of our children, and economic competition. Now, the European Union is taking action on the matter.

With each of these threats, the same basic processes come into play. Algorithms restrict conversations to small groups of “friends” determined by data, while gatekeepers restrict online marketplaces for their own benefit. These restrictions carry the risk that we lose track of the broader world, and the broader marketplace, around us.

For decades, technology platforms were allowed to basically do whatever they wanted, with very little legislation to constrain them as they gained ever greater control of the world’s information channels. But that began to change a few years ago, when the EU led a global effort to restore some balance in the digital economy, guaranteeing justice and basic protections for the population.

Privacy was the first concern. As major platforms drove record revenues by collecting user data, it was clear that our understanding of privacy needed to be modernized. Privacy therefore became a non-negotiable right for everyone in Europe. As citizens, we – and only we – now set the limits of what we share and stop sharing about ourselves.

This conception of privacy as a fundamental right was enshrined in the 2016 EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With the GDPR, Europe set a course for democracy to catch up with technology. Today, there is no way to go back to how things were before the law. Landmark EU legislation has since inspired similar frameworks in other jurisdictions around the world.

Hot on the heels of this initial data privacy initiative came the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when we learned that Facebook had shared 87 million user profiles with a researcher who then gave the data to a political consultant working at the company. Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Suddenly, we all began to wonder if our digital lives were safe, and to what extent we were being watched, influenced and manipulated online.

Brick by brick, the wall of pseudo-neutrality behind which the platforms had been hidden -with the usual argument that they were simple “conduits” for transmitting information- began to be dismantled. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Big Tech had to take responsibility for the content that they and their algorithms disseminate to the body politic. We responded by setting out this responsibility, clearly and forcefully, in the Digital Services Law, which was first introduced in December 2020.

The DSA is the centerpiece of EU legislation that will soon regulate how content is treated on major digital platforms. It requires platforms to remove all illegal content, while ensuring that their users’ freedom of expression remains intact. It also addresses how platforms use algorithms to determine what we see and what we don’t see. We are currently in the process of designating which major search engines and platforms will be subject to these DSA provisions before they go into effect this fall.

The last major issue that the new EU digital legislation will address is the lack of healthy competition in the tech sector. In recent years, regulators have brought significant cases against large online platforms, some of which have increased public awareness of the platforms’ undue market power. But digital markets have become more complex and we have needed new systemic tools to supplement traditional antitrust instruments.

The Digital Markets Law was drafted to address this need. It lists a list of “do’s and don’ts” intended to prevent so-called gatekeeper platforms from abusing their position in digital markets, and to leave some space for new entrants to compete with existing ones on the basis of to merit. In the same way that the DSA will officially articulate the responsibilities of the platforms to their users, the DMA will establish their responsibilities to other – often smaller – market participants. The result will be a more vibrant, more innovative, and fairer technology marketplace.

We passed this legislation in record time. Throughout the process, we ensured that our work was guided by values, not the underlying technology. This is important because while technologies change all the time, values ​​don’t.

We are proud that Europe has become the cradle of global technology regulation. It has been gratifying to see similar laws drafted in countries that share our democratic and humanistic values, and we remain eager to coordinate our own regulatory and regulatory efforts with others.

The EU-EU Trade and Technology Council, created in 2021, was an early example of how international cooperation can be deepened to ensure technologies work for everyone. We have now formed similar alliances with India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

For democracy to thrive, it has to open spaces where people can talk, disagree, contradict each other and find common solutions.

In the past, we had the public squares, the elected chambers, the universities and the cafes. When the Internet came along, he brought along the promise of expanding these forums globally. But the rise of the big platforms got in the way, fragmenting our conversations into a constellation of opaque, walled-off spaces, posing a threat to our democracy. Today, tearing down those walls is the task of citizens everywhere.

*The author is Executive Vice President of the European Commission.

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