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Twitter leads call for EU lawmakers to ‘think beyond Big Tech’

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

In a formalization of an earlier Twitter-led push to try to exert influence over fast-forming European digital regulations, the social media firm has used its Twitter Spaces platform to host the official kick-off of a policy advocacy lobby group that’s being branded the Open Internet Alliance (OIA).

Alongside Twitter, video streaming platform Vimeo; Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, WooCommerce and Tumblr; the Czech and Slovak-focused search engine company, Seznam; and Jodel, a Berlin-based (profile-less) social network, are named as founding members.

Twitter said the establishment of this formal lobbying alliance has been some two years in the making.

Notably Mozilla — which had joined Twitter, Auttomatic and Vimeo in a earlier call for incoming EU digital regulations to support better user controls to tackle bad speech rather than home in on content censorship — is not being named as a founding member, so appears to be sitting this one out. At the time of writing it’s unclear why Mozilla is missing (we’ve asked). But the Alliance is putting out a wider call for other “middle-layer” internet companies to join the initiative — so the grouping may grow in size.

Albeit — very clearly — Big Tech need not apply.

Understanding Europe’s big push to rewrite the digital rulebook

Speaking during a Twitter Spaces event today to discuss the formation of the alliance, Sinéad McSweeney, Twitter’s global policy VP, said the group is making a plea to lawmakers to think about the wider web ecosystem — rather than see the internet as “a monolith” comprised of just a handful of tech giants.

“Our plea in aid of the open internet is that [lawmakers] not view the internet as a monolith, nor indeed view it as fixing the internet solving all of societies problems,” she said, urging policymakers to: “Take a wider focus when they’re looking at solutions — not look at the internet just through the lens of a handful of companies. And really think about the entire ecosystem — and get away from this sense ‘oh Big Tech is the problem’.”

“Because — in actual fact, in their efforts to tackle so called ‘Big Tech’ — that is all we may end up with,” she warned.

In remarks ahead of the Spaces event, a Twitter spokesperson also told TechCrunch the aim of the initiative is to kick off an “open conversation” and press for regulation that fosters “diversity and innovation on the internet”, as the company put it.

Per Twitter, OIA members support “an Open Internet where digital rights are preserved, where the internet is not dominated by a handful of companies and internet users and consumers can have real and meaningful choice and their privacy protected”.

“At a time where the global internet is at a crossroads, potentially ill-considered regulations risk us heading for a future where the biggest internet companies become the only companies able to operate stifling innovation, and risking freedom of expression as a pillar of democracy becoming more and more compromised,” Twitter also said ahead of today’s event.

The alliance’s Eurocentric focus is clear, given two of the five founding members are (smaller) European tech firms.

This isn’t surprising, given how advanced the EU is on digital policy making — with a whole swathe of ambitious policy proposals being presented in recent years, which are set to impact scores of digital businesses.

Some major EU digital proposals have already been adopted (e.g. the Data Governance Act), others — like the Digital Services Act (DSA), and gatekeeper-focused Digital Markets Act (DMA) — are speeding towards adoption. Still more are wending through the EU’s co-legislative process, while other incoming puzzle-pieces of the bloc’s expansive digital policy agenda are in the process of being drafted.

All these incoming EU regulations will have broad application once they are transposed into nation law, applying across the bloc’s 27 Member States (which has some 440 million+ citizens). So European digital policymaking is both cutting edge and big enough in scope to make any global tech business sit up and take notice. (And when the goal is, first and foremost, to lobby EU lawmakers, having local membership in your alliance will surely help increase local impact versus a purely U.S. tech firm grouping whose talking points could be all-too-easily dismissed as a non-European view of digital rule-making.)

Big Tech’s lobbying of the flotilla of EU digital regulations being shaped in Brussels, meanwhile, has been hard to miss in recent years as the sums of euros involved are so eye-watering — and, seemingly, keep inflating.

Lobbying transparency group, Corporate Europe Observatory (COE), points out that the top five Big Tech lobbyists all updated their entries in the EU’s lobby register last week to disclose beefed up spending. (Apple, for example, went from spending €3.5 million to a whopping €6.5 million+.)

Last summer a report by COE and another local lobbying transparency group, LobbyControl, found that just 10 tech giants dominate EU lobbying — namely: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Amazon, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Vodafone — which it said were collectively spending more than €32 million a year (at that point) to try to influence EU tech policy (a third of the €97 million annual spend by hundreds of companies, groups and business associations the NGOs were able to track). But those figures are already out of date as Big Tech lobby budgets keep swelling.

In any case, the bald sums transparency organizations have been able to attribute to tech giants is likely the tip of the iceberg where Big Tech’s public policy spending is concerned — especially U.S. giants Facebook, Google, Microsoft and (to a lesser extent) Apple — as these companies also plough support into a network of third-party industry associations, which they help fund or otherwise influence, who can then act as indirect mouthpieces for their talking points.

This networked structure enables the largest tech firms to launder regional lobbying that’s directly aligned with their corporate interests under the guise of grassroots industry concern (see, for example, p. 38 of the report on the digital industry’s funding of a sprawling network of think tanks and NGOs).

How, then, can the SME layer of the internet — which includes plenty of platforms offering directly competing services to Big Tech — hope to get their voices heard by lawmakers? Twitter et al’s answer is by banding together to push a narrative around the notion of Internet openness, it seems.

(Somewhat unfortunately, we’ve seen a similar “open internet” claim being deployed as a lobbying device elsewhere recently, in the adtech space — in that case to push against privacy-minded reform of ad tracking technologies; but there’s no suggestion of any formal link between the two separate lobby groupings.)

In simple spending terms, the OIA is of course hopelessly outgunned by Big Tech’s EU lobbying blitz — as the entries for Twitter, Vimeo, Automattic and Seznam in the EU’s lobbying register illustrate. These disclosures indicate that Twitter leads the grouping with a spend of between €300,000-€399,999 in 2021; followed by Seznam (€100,000-€199,900). While Vimeo (€10,000-€24,999 spent between 2020 and 2021) and Automattic (€10,000 in 2021) are mobilizing considerably less. (Jodel is not a registered EU lobbyist).

“The combined lobbying of these companies is at at least €420,000 per year,” confirms COE researcher, Margarida Silva, when asked about the discrepancy in lobbying fire power between the OIA’s four EU lobby registered founding members and big tech. “This pales in comparison with Big Tech firms which together spend more than €27 million a year lobbying. This is line with the overall massive gap between the lobbying budgets of the top companies with the vast majority of other players.”

As it stands, the resources the OIA can marshal to try to influence EU digital policy are a far cry from the multi-millions being annually pumped into Brussels by Big Tech — at least, unless they manage to recruit thousands more long-tail internet companies to their cause. So grouping together under an “open internet” banner — which may also be able to attract wider support from progressive NGOs and civil society organizations — looks savvy.

What exactly is the alliance lobbying for then?

The OIA has condensed its objectives into eight core principles — some of which look ambitious, to say the least, given how much digital policymaking is now going on around the world, as multiple countries seek to put their own stamp on ‘acceptable’ online activity. (See, for example, the U.K.’s safety-focused content regulation push which looks set to rip up the EU principle of no general monitoring obligation for platforms; or growing Russian censorship mandates which are being extended to blocking entire foreign web services that don’t toe the Kremlin’s line; or Australia’s hardball approach to end-to-end encryption and to forcing adtech giants to cough up local licensing fees for news reuse, to name a few recent policy developments which risk further and even fatally splintering the notion of a single “global internet”).

Tech CEOs to face faster criminal liability under UK online safety law

Regardless, among the eight OIA “principles” is a push for “Regional & global regulatory alignment”, aka advocacy for a single set of rules for the global internet (or, at least, less regional variation); as well as what’s being billed as “non-binary content regulation”, which suggests the group favors rules that focus on tackling problem content with less absolutist measures (i.e. reduced discovery and/or reach/amplification versus hard takedown/leave-up mandates that they argue “only benefits the largest companies”); along with a push for intermediary liability protections for platforms, net neutrality, decentralization (i.e. through use of open APIs and protocols) and interoperability, among other goals.

Interoperability is likely to be a key component of the EU’s ex ante competition reform (the DMA) — but the extent to which the incoming regulation will force the most powerful tech platforms to make their services play nice with rivals is still being debated.

An EU diplomat with knowledge of trilogue discussions on this file told TechCrunch that discussions are ongoing over whether or not interoperability provisions should apply to messaging platforms — and, if so, whether group messages should be excluded from a requirement to interoperate (which would leave only one-to-one messaging cross-platform interoperability on the table).

The latter outcome would limit how far the EU’s flagship ex ante competition regulation could reverse messaging platforms’ network effects and dominance of the social messaging sphere — so the stakes remain extremely high for smaller and mid tier messaging firms which stand to benefit (by gaining users) if they are able to plug their competing services into major messaging networks.

On the flip side, if EU lawmakers lose their nerve over the extent of the DMA’s interoperability obligations, tech giants like Meta stand to gain a major victory by closing down the possibility of smaller, nippier, friendly rivals and startups having a legally certain route (mandatory interoperability) through which they might have a fighting chance of challenging Meta’s grip on consumers’ attention through their service innovation.

As regards the DSA — which is set to apply more broadly to digital services (i.e. not only operationally to the most powerful internet gatekeepers) — Twitter told us that the OIA’s focus will be on proportionality. And on not limiting the options for implementation to a specific service or technology.

The company also pointed to its earlier policy position statements on the DSA, Crossroads for the Open Internet; Digital Services Act: Defending the Open Internet, in fleshing out where the collective lobbying efforts will focus.

Twitter said the group is especially concerned about the risk of incoming EU rules like the DSA increasing fragmentation.

On this front it suggested the DSA’s focus on illegal content could further empower Member States to create their own rule variations, rather than harmonizing approaches across the bloc — arguing that could result in geoblocking within the EU, if platforms are required to comply with a patchwork of national laws. (Indeed, as has already been the case after Germany’s NetzDG social media hate speech law.)

The alliance argues that such fragmentation is easier for the largest companies to comply with — meaning regulations that don’t limit regional variation could end up helping the tech giants and penalizing the longer tail of digital businesses which have nowhere near as much resource to throw at compliance and lawyers as the giants.

During today’s Spaces event, Twitter’s McSweeney spoke to this concern, saying: “Our concern within the alliance is the voices of mid and smaller sized companies are just not being heard in talks on these pieces of legislation. And that if we don’t speak up there is a risk that while the DMA seeks to open the gates to competition that the DSA will actually slam them shut by mandating content moderation rules that will fracture the digital single market into 27 different markets with 27 different sets of rules. And the inevitable consequence of that kind of fragmentation is only the very largest tech companies will be able to comply.”

“Our industry is more than the largest companies and our laws need to reflect that reality. And sometimes it’s important to highlight how large the gap is between the top companies and the rest of the internet,” she added, reiterating that the Alliance is: “A plea to policymakers, particularly in the EU, that they would create a regulatory environment that promotes fair competition, consumer choice — but fundamentally one that acknowledges the internet is more than just four companies.”

Per McSweeney, the industry group is the culmination of two years of “talking and letter writing”, as lesser sized internet companies have watched regulatory proposals brewing.

She said the goal now is “to forge dialogue with policymakers and define the future of the open internet in the EU”.

“It’s timely because as we know the EU is now looking to finalize two significant laws — the DSA and the DMA — that will set rules in Europe itself for at least a generation. While also setting a global precedent that others around the world will seek to follow,” she added. 

McSweeney also said that Twitter shares policymakers’ concerns about online disinformation and illegal and/or harmful content — which the DSA is intended to address by setting out governance rules for how platforms handle such content — but she urged lawmakers to work towards “solutions and regulations which are forward thinking and which are broader in their application”.

“As an Alliance our aim is to foster an Internet as it was intended to be: Open, diverse, fair innovative and I think we would welcome harmonized and proportionate regulation — that would give us clear parameters in which to operate,” she added.

Representatives from the other founding member companies of the OIA also spoke during the Twitter Spaces event.

Michal Feix, general counsel for Seznam, talked up the discrepancy in lobbying firepower between tech giants and other digital businesses — despite incoming regulations, in many cases, also being set to affect the broad internet ecosystem. 

“The budgets are obviously incomparable to what large giants can spend on public affairs and PR through tens of different Brussels-based associations and lobby groups. So I see this as an opportunity for those smaller, like-minded internet companies to voice their views and concerns on what’s going on around Brussels while shaping the legislation in Europe,” said Feix.

“There’s lot of important legislation growing right now in Brussels,” he added. “And this is going to shape the face of Europe for the next several years — I think it is important to show off what we believe… It’s not just a bunch of those usual suspects. But it is a large ecosystem of companies that actually helps keep internet open and full of choices. And these companies simply should be heard.”

The Alliance’s smallest founding member, Berlin-based Jodel, chipped in to speak up in favor of “good” regulation — while also emphasizing the disproportionately greater burden that less well crafted regulations can impose on smaller tech firms.

“I think regulation is good, regulation is needed but it also obviously needs to be good regulation and in order to preserve innovation, to preserve the innovation we’ve been experiencing over the last 20 years with the internet. We want to keep that so let’s make sure that the regulation goes in the right direction,” said Tim Schmitz, COO and co-founder of Jodel.

“The more complex the regulation, the more local regulation — sometimes within a country it’s different from state to state — it creates a lot of… unnecessary friction. The time would better be invested into making sure you have a safe environment on the platform,” he added. “Lawyers are expensive and we are a small company and we would rather invest that money into building a better product.”

Setting aside the (gentle) irony of a call for a more open internet being hosted on Twitter’s (proprietary) Spaces platform — which doesn’t exactly make it easy to join without signing into (or up for) Twitter first (or at least knowing someone else who is and has and is willing to send you a link to one of these ephemeral, walled garden audio events) — the not-as-giant-as-some social media firm said it’s leading the lobbying initiative because it sees it as its mission to serve the “public conversation”; a mission Twitter further suggested must extend to fostering dialogue about the future of the internet.

Update: Mozilla’s senior public policy manager, Owen Bennett, has now sent this statement about its work with the Alliance:

“Mozilla was involved in some early discussions and actions out of which the Open Internet Alliance has ultimately emerged. Being involved in early conversations and engaging with potential allies on building collaborative movements focused on issues that aim to make the web better, more open and accessible to all is typical of how we engage on policy issues. Sometimes, this may result in Mozilla joining the coalition; other times, we may find other helpful ways to contribute to bringing these issues forward.

“We’re glad to see the members reach this milestone. We’re focusing our resources on other open internet projects at this time but we will continue to follow this initiative with interest.”

Automattic, Mozilla, Twitter and Vimeo urge EU to beef up user controls to help tackle ‘legal-but-harmful’ content

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