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Digital EU: the Good, the Bad — and the Ugly

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The European Union has impressive digital ambitions and an equally impressive array of initiatives, proposals, directives and regulations, all designed to make the bloc ‘fit for the digital age’.


‘DIGITAL EU’: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY Margrethe Vestager’s hearing to be commissioner for competition in 2019 Source: European Parliament Vestager: ‘Technology must not steal our time’ Given the rapid pace of digitalisation, the EU has rushed to set and regulate digital standards. Many new initiatives are led by Margrethe Vestager, executive vice-president at the European Commission and commissioner for competition, who tells Elena Sanchez Nicolas the focus must be on making technology work for people By ELENA SANCHEZ NICOLAS Margrethe Vestager, widely-regarded as one of Europe’s most powerful women, may spend most of her professional life trying to make the continent “fit for the digital age” (her official job title as EU commissioner) yet she is adamant that technology must not control our entire lives. “My main worry is that all of a sudden we forget just to look each other in the eye, and have a normal dinner without the phone on the table, to talk, or take a walk in the forest without registering every step,” she says in an interview for EUobserver magazine. Technological transformation must work for people, warns the Danish former economy and home affairs minister. “We have chosen to do our best to make sure that technology actually serves the societies that we live in, and who we are as citizens, consumers, and voters,” she stresses. The EU commissioner has her work cut out. One of her many tasks is to make sure the EU stays a step ahead in the fierce geopolitical competition for global tech leadership. The European approach of ‘rules and regulations’, in order to promote a competitive model but one which is also values-based, is being challenged by China’s no-copyright ‘free-for-all’ method, and the US ‘move-fast-and-break-it’ model. Whether there is room for three such markedly-different approaches is still an open question, she acknowledges. Certainly, the EU is making its own mark. The Digital Service Act (DSA) and the Digital Market Act (DMA) two landmark pieces of digital legislation agreed upon in record time under the French EU Council presidency in the first half of 2022 are the first salvos in Europe’s effort to bring an end to the socalled ‘Wild West’ elements of Big Tech. My main worry is that all of a sudden we forget just to look each other in the eye, and have a normal dinner without the phone on the table, to talk, or take a walk in the forest without registering every step.” These rules are deemed a new era in tech regulation, aiming to set worldwide standards beyond Europe’s borders – but it still remains to be seen whether national authorities or the EU bodies will have enough teeth to ensure their enforcement. The DSA is expected to give control back to users, prohibit illegal content online, and make online platforms more transparent. The DMA will complement the bloc’s competition policy, prohibiting anti-competitive behaviour by internet giants which act as ‘gatekeepers’. Given their significant and entrenched market power, turnover and user numbers, US tech firms, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, all fall under this category. “With the Digital Market Act, the rules of the game are changing”, says Vestager. “Those who have market power, also have obligations and prohibitions that the others do not have – and that of course is rebalancing the market power”, she says, referring to the ways in which Margrethe Vestager new rules will prohibit such gatekeepers from engaging in unfair business practices. Google, for example, was fined €2.4bn in 2017 for promoting its service called “Google Shopping” over similar such services from competitors. But new rules will prohibit such behaviour a priori. The commission, Vestager says, is already working with companies on what to do and how to do it. Tech platforms presumed to be gatekeepers will have to share data about their average user numbers in the EU. These reports will help the commission designate very large companies in a list, which will be public and regularly updated. Data boom One may think that Europe lost the first battle for technological leadership to the US and China and their Big Tech behemoths such as Facebook, Amazon or Huawei. But has the EU lost the war? The commissioner says a new phase of digitalisation is taking off bringing a 7

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