European lawmakers are considering new rules for Internet giants that could include forcing them to share data with smaller rivals and/or put narrow limits on how they can use data in a bid to level the digital playing field.
Other ideas in the mix are a ban on dominant platforms favoring their own services or forcing users to sign up to a bundle of services, according to draft regulatory proposals leaked to the press.
The FT and Reuters both report seeing drafts of the forthcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) — which EU lawmakers are expected to introduce before the end of the year.
Their reports suggest there could be major restrictions on key digital infrastructure such as Apple’s iOS App Store and the Android Google Play store, as well as potentially limits on how ecommerce behemoth Amazon could use the data of merchants selling on its platform — something the Commission is already investigating.
A Commission spokesperson declined to confirm or deny anything in the two reports, saying it does not comment on leaks or comments by others.
“We remain committed to presenting the DSA still this year,” he added.
Per the Financial Times, the leaked draft states: “Gatekeepers shall not use data received from business users for advertising services for any other purpose other than advertising service.”
Its report suggests tech giants will be shocked by the scale of regulations coming down the pipe — noting 30 paragraphs of prohibitions or obligations — with the caveat that the proposal remains at an early stage, meaning big tech lobbyists still have everything to play for.
On bundling, lawmakers are eyeing rules that would mean dominant platforms must let users uninstall any pre-loaded apps — as well as looking at barring them from harming rivals by giving preferential treatment to their own services, according to the reports.
“Gatekeepers shall not pre-install exclusively their own applications nor require from any third party operating system developers or hardware manufacturers to pre-install exclusively gatekeepers’ own application,” per Reuters, quoting the draft it’s seen.
The Commission’s experience of antitrust complaints against Google seems likely to be a factor informing these elements — given a string of EU enforcements against the likes of Google Shopping and Android in recent years have generated headlines but failed to move the competitive needle nor satisfy complainants, even as fresh complaints about Google keep coming.
Per Reuters the draft rules would also subject gatekeeper platforms to annual audits of their advertising metrics and reporting practices.
Platforms’ self-serving transparency remains a much complained about facet of how these giants currently operate — making efforts to hold them accountable over things like content take-down performance doomed to fuzzy failure.
The Commission’s public consultation on the DSA was launched in June — and closed on September 8.
In a lengthy response earlier this month, Google lobbied against ex ante rules for platform giants, urging regulators to instead modernise existing frameworks where any gaps are found rather than imposing tougher requirements on tech giants.
Should there be ex ante rules the adtech giant pushed lawmakers not to single out any particular business models — while also urging against an “overly simplistic” definition of ‘gatekeeper’ platforms.
Facebook has also been ploughing effort into lobbying commissioners ahead of the DSA proposal — seeking to frame the discussion in key risk areas for its business model, such as around privacy and data portability.
In May, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made time for a livestreamed debate run by a big tech-backed policy ‘think tank’ CERRE — appearing alongside Thierry Breton, the Commission VP for the internal market. The Facebook CEO warned about ‘Cambridge Analytica-style’ privacy risks if too much data portability is enforced, while the commissioner warned Facebook to pay its taxes or expect to be regulated.
More recently, Facebook’s head of global policy has sought to link European SMEs’ post-COVID-19 economic recovery prospects to Facebook’s continued exploitation of people’s data via its ad platform — tacitly warning EU lawmakers against closing down its privacy-hostile business model.
Such lobbying may be falling on deaf ears, though. Earlier this month Breton, told the FT the feeling among Brussels’ lawmakers is that platforms have got ‘too big to care’ — hence the conviction that new rules are needed to enforce higher standards.
Breton said then that lawmakers are considering a rating system to allow the public and stakeholders to assess companies’ behaviour in areas such as tax compliance and how quickly they take down illegal content.
He suggested a blacklist of activities could be applied to dominant platforms with a sliding scale of penalties for non-compliance — up to and including the separation of some operations, according to the FT’s report.
He also committed to not removing the current limited liability platforms have around content published on their platforms, saying: “The safe harbour of the liability exemption will stay. That’s something that’s accepted by everyone.”
In another signal of looming intent earlier this month, the Commission said it’s time to move beyond self-regulatory approaches to tackling problem content like disinformation — though it’s yet to flesh out its policy plan in that area. In June it also suggested it’s eyeing binding transparency requirements related to online hate speech, saying platforms’ own reporting is still too patchy.