Europe is preparing to rewrite the rules for the Internet

Europe is preparing to rewrite the rules for the Internet

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Next week, a law goes into effect that will change the Internet forever — and make it much harder to be a tech giant. On November 1, the EU’s Digital Markets Act comes into force, starting the clock on a process expected to force Amazon, Google and Meta to make their platforms more open and interoperable by 2023. It could bring big changes to what people can do with their devices and apps, in a fresh reminder that Europe has regulated tech companies far more actively than the United States.

“We expect the consequences to be significant,” said Gerard de Graaf, a veteran EU official who helped pass the DMA early this year. Last month, he became head of a new EU office in San Francisco, set up in part to explain the law’s implications for Big Tech companies. De Graaf says they will be forced to break up their walled gardens.

“If you have an iPhone, you should be able to download apps not just from the App Store but from other app stores or from the Internet,” de Graaf says in an emerald-green accented conference room at the Irish consulate in San Francisco, where the EU’s office to a the beginning exists. The DMA requires dominant platforms to let in smaller competitors and could also force Meta’s WhatsApp to accept messages from competing apps like Signal or Telegram, or prevent Amazon, Apple and Google from favoring their own apps and services.

Although the DMA goes into effect next week, tech platforms don’t have to follow suit immediately. The EU must first decide which companies are large enough and entrenched to be classed as “gatekeepers” under the toughest rules. De Graaf expects that about a dozen companies will be part of that group, which will be announced in the spring. These gatekeepers then have six months to fulfill the requirements.

De Graaf has predicted a wave of lawsuits challenging Europe’s new Big Tech rules but says he is in California to help make clear to Silicon Valley giants that the rules have changed. The EU has previously levied large fines against Google, Apple and others through antitrust investigations, a mechanism that puts the burden of proof on bureaucrats, he says. According to the DMA, the responsibility lies with the business to fall in line. “The key message is that the negotiations are over, we are in a compliance situation,” says de Graaf. “You may not like it, but that’s the way it is.”

Like the EU’s digital privacy law, GDPR, the DMA is expected to lead to changes in how technology platforms serve people beyond the EU’s 400 million internet users, as certain details of compliance will be easier to implement globally.

Tech companies will also soon have to contend with a second sweeping EU law, the Digital Services Act, which requires risk assessments of certain algorithms and disclosures about automated decision-making and could force social apps like TikTok to open up their data to outside scrutiny. The law is also to be implemented in stages, with the largest online platforms expected to have to comply by mid-2024. The EU is also considering adopting specific rules for artificial intelligence, which could ban certain use cases of the technology.

De Graaf argues that tougher regulation of tech giants is needed, not only to protect people and other companies from unfair practices, but to allow society to reap the full benefits of technology. He has been critical of a non-binding AI Bill of Rights recently released by the White House, saying a lack of firm regulation could undermine public confidence in technology. “If our citizens lose confidence in AI because they believe it discriminates against them and leads to outcomes that are harmful to their lives,” he says, “they will avoid AI, and it will never be successful.”

The EU’s new office opened following recent moves by the bloc and the US to cooperate more on technology policy. De Graaf says both sides are interested in finding ways to address chip shortages and how authoritarian governments can harness technology and the Internet.

He’s also planning a trip to Sacramento to meet with California state lawmakers who he says have been trailblazers in standing up to Big Tech. They passed a bill last month that requires strict privacy standards for children and controls on how companies use the data they collect about children. The US Congress has passed relatively little legislation affecting the technology industry in recent years, aside from the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act to support semiconductor manufacturing in July.

Marlena Wisniak, who leads the work on technology at the European Center for Not for Profit Law, takes the EU’s new presence in the tech industry’s backyard as new evidence that it is serious about shaping technology policy globally. She says de Graaf should use some of that power to benefit people who depend on Big Tech platforms outside the US and the EU, who are rarely represented in tech diplomacy.

Wisniak also hopes that the EU’s digital emissary can avoid falling into traps that have derailed the plans of some previous newcomers to Silicon Valley, a place with far more executives, entrepreneurs and investors than policy experts. “I hope that the EU’s decision-makers are not blinded by the technological hype,” she says. “The story of tech bro is real.”

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