Digital Brief: The power of online platforms

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“We need to address the power of digital platforms.”

-Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, Monday 3 June.


As the steely Dane pursues her bid for the next Commission presidency, Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager outlined a series of sweeping reforms to the EU’s digital economy on Monday, saying that the EU should be “ready to act” should social values such as “privacy, freedom and fairness” be under threat from expanding digital monopolies.

“The biggest threat to competition and innovation,” Vestager said at the OECD’s conference on competition and the digital economy, “comes from platforms that are not just a single business, but the centre of large empires.”

“We need to address the power of digital platforms.”

As a footnote, another of the EU’s current crop of Commissioners, Bulgarian Mariya Gabriel, who manages the Digital Economy and Society portfolio, announced on Monday that she wouldn’t take up a seat in the European Parliament after topping the list for the country’s GERB party (EPP). There are five to six months ahead of the new EC,” Gabriel said on Monday. “I can not afford not to remain a commissioner and in this period Bulgaria will not have a commissioner.”

In France, EURACTIV’s Aline Robert reported that the French Ministry of Economy wants to change competition practices and trade policy in Europe, with proposals to tackle new digital conglomerates.

Across the pond, US counterparts sought to readdress that imbalance, after it transpired that the Department of Justice will conduct an antitrust investigation into Alphabet’s Google and Apple, while the Department of Justice will oversee a probe into Amazon and Facebook, on the grounds of “anti-competitive products.”

Returning to the bloc, campaigners on Tuesday filed complaints to data protection regulators in France, Germany and seven other EU countries over the way Google deals with data in online advertising.

In addition, a pan-European coalition of leaders from politics, civil society, academia and journalism, signed a joint letter calling on the EU to launch an inquiry into the impact of technology platforms on democracy and elections on Wednesday. Former ALDE MEP Marietje Schaake initiated the letter and on Wednesday she explained the motivation behind it.

“Self-regulation has proven insufficient,” she said. “Not a day goes by without new information about malicious actors (ab)using tech platforms, undermining democracy, without technology companies taking sufficient action.”

Never one to shy away from the news, Facebook was in the headlines once again towards the end of last week, after it was reported that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will hear a landmark privacy case regarding the transfer of EU citizens’ data to the United States in July, after the tech giant’s bid to stop its referral was blocked by Ireland’s Supreme Court.

The powers of the digital giants could be curtailed even further, after nearly 130 countries and territories agreed to a roadmap aimed at overhauling international tax rules which have been overtaken by the development of digital commerce, towards the end of last week.

Moreover, a non-binding opinion from the Court of Justice of the European Union stated on Tuesday that Facebook can be ordered to seek and identify defamatory comments that have been found to be illegal, in the case of an injunction.

The digital platforms are also set to be hit by new copyright rules, that some in the previous Parliament, including the Green’s Julia Reda, claimed could stifle the freedom of the web. On Monday, Former MEP Catherine Stihler has welcomed a Polish complaint to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) about the EU’s controversial copyright crackdown.

A bit of Fintech news now as it transpired earlier this week that the Commission is putting in place various initiatives for the new Finance Commissioner, whoever it may be. EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero revealed that a legislative framework for crypto assets could be introduced in the next executive, and DG FISMA also wants a European financial sector cybersecurity act.

Jumping over to the theme of cybersecurity now, on Tuesday EURACTIV Germany’s Alicia Prager drew our attention to the fact that the country is preparing a new cyber defence strategy, after a leaked internal concept paper from the government foresees the use of so-called hack-backs and changes to the German Basic Law. But experts have criticised the exclusion of the general public from discussions about a new cyber defence strategy.

What cybersecurity discussion would be complete without a nod to Huawei? Well, US President Trump’s lobbying in the UK seemed to fall on deaf ears this week, with the American leader saying that the two parties will “have absolutely an agreement on Huawei and everything else,” during a joint press conference in London.

No agreement has thus far been reached, but the UK’s position on the firm – that it will allow Huawei to be involved in ‘non-core’ aspects of the country’s 5G infrastructure, has been perceived as a balanced approach by many in Europe.  Potentially the next UK Prime Minister, Matt Hancock, told the Telegraph on Wednesday that Huawei must be beaten by a British champion, rather than being banned in the country.

Further afield, on Friday, the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted concerns with the US’s blacklisting of Huawei, saying that “the US and China need to work together, and with other countries too, to bring the global system up to date, and to not upend the system.”

“To succeed in this, each must understand the other’s point of view, and reconcile each other’s interests,” he added.

Reconciling different interests is also becoming a priority, it seems, in the context of the future of the EU’s media sector, as freedom and plurality in the industry face growing challenges across some EU member states, notably Hungary and Bulgaria. Last week, EURACTIV Germany’s Claire Stam went along to the Global Media Forum, organised by our media partner Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn.

Minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet (CDU) struck a concerned tone as to the future of the media on the bloc. “Today, we realise that freedom of the press is on top of the political agenda again, here, in Europe,” he said. “Suddenly we have to acknowledge that press freedom is under threat again.”

On My Radar

Friday’s Telecoms council – where Ministers will discuss a range of issues including a progress report on the controversial ePrivacy regulation and the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019.


What else I’m reading this week:

Facebook shareholders call for Zuckerberg’s ouster as chairman (New York Post)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it’s time to regulate Big Tech (The Verge)

Russia Is Demanding Tinder Give User Data To Its Secret Services (Huff Post)

YouTube to remove thousands of videos pushing extreme views (New York Times)


Upcoming events

Keep an eye out for our high-level event on Media Policy presented by Fondation EURACTIV, coming up towards the end of June at the European Parliament.


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