Tech regulation in Europe will only get tougher

European governments have been bringing the hammer down on tech in recent months, slapping record fines and stiff regulations on the largest imports out of Silicon Valley. Despite pleas from the world’s leading companies and Europe’s eroding trust in government, European citizens’ staunch support for regulation of new technologies points to an operating environment that is only getting tougher.

According to a roughly 25-page report recently published by a research arm out of Spain’s IE University, European citizens remain skeptical of tech disruption and want to handle their operators with kid gloves, even at a cost to the economy.

The survey was led by the IE’s Center for the Governance of Change — an IE-hosted research institution focused on studying “the political, economic, and societal implications of the current technological revolution and advances solutions to overcome its unwanted effects.” The “European Tech Insights 2019” report surveyed roughly 2,600 adults from various demographics across seven countries (France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and the UK) to gauge ground-level opinions on ongoing tech disruption and how government should deal with it.

The report does its fair share of fear-mongering and some of its major conclusions come across as a bit more “clickbaity” than insightful. However, the survey’s more nuanced data and line of questioning around specific forms of regulation offer detailed insight into how the regulatory backdrop and operating environment for European tech may ultimately evolve.



The first key finding the report calls out is that 56% of Europeans claimed they were worried about the automation of human jobs. When introducing the data point, the report explains:

“Silicon Valley celebrates ongoing advancements in robotics and automation as a phenomenon that will boost economic growth and improve people’s lives. But that narrative isn’t getting through to Europe, where 56% of citizens express weariness about a world where machines perform most of the tasks currently done by humans.”

The claim that Europe’s fear over automation is a revelation or an outlier globally seems misleading, as a number of past studies indicate similar, if not greater, levels of concern coming from the US and elsewhere. Furthermore, the 56% of respondents expressing concern appears to be largely driven by older demographics, with nearly 70% of citizens age 65 and up expressing concern over the automation compared to just 51% ages 18-34.

The older age groups likely make up a more significant portion of respondents as well, given that the respondents were selected to be representative of countries’ actual demographics and median ages of European countries skews to the older side relative the rest of the world. The dynamic of older demos being fearful of new technology while younger demos are more open to tech is by no means an enlightening observation and is one worth skipping over.

Another conclusion called out in the report, as well as by some of the report’s media coverage, is that one in four respondents were in favor of letting AI make important decisions about running their respective countries. First, 25% of respondents saying they would be “somewhat or totally” in favor of AI-driven policy doesn’t seem all that significant, especially without an accompanying time series to see how the data has matured. It’s also been well-telegraphed that trust in government has been waning in European countries as of late, and it’s very easy for citizens displeased with current leaders to support any alternative, including robots.

The more interesting observation is in the geographic breakdown of responses that shed light onto the governments experiencing the largest erosion of trust. 42% of respondents from The Netherlands, for example, were in favor of letting AI make national decisions relative to just 19% in Portugal. Given the early state of AI penetration, the prospect of having AI run national policy seems so distant that the “conclusion” around AI seems more like futurist porn.


The report sheds its ambiguity in its detailed questioning over potential government intervention into tech and automation, which was the most compelling section. Rather than solely asking whether there should be regulation, the survey asked respondents whether they would be in favor of specific types of regulation, including taxation, different forms of caps on automated jobs, and government support for displaced workers.

Respondents overwhelmingly supported nearly all proposed regulations, with each proposal receiving support from 65-75% of participants. Responses were consistent across age, gender, ideology, and education levels. On a country-by-country basis, certain forms of regulation received more support in some regions than in others. Yet no policy received less than 64% support from respondents in any country, though certain policies in some countries, such as government support for displaced workers in Portugal, received over 90% support from respondents.

Similarly, more than 50% of respondents were in favor of filtering social networks political and ideological content to protect democracy, with fairly consistent rates of support across demographics and geographies, with the exception of Spain where only 41% of respondents were in favor of filtering.

In aggregate, three of the four thematic sections and key highlights called out in the executive summary seem misleading, unimportant or worth passing over. However, the “European Tech Insights 2019” survey goes a step further than most by gauging not only whether regulation is likely, but the shape such regulation might take, and how likely it is that specific policies would get passed. Whether its taxation, caps or otherwise, the report offers us a glimpse at the rules that may ultimately govern tech and automation companies in Europe.

While it’s still unclear which policies we’ll ultimately see in Europe, the population appears willing to support almost any form of regulation. Europe clearly wants stability over economic growth and it seems like the regulatory crackdown seen in recent months is just the beginning.