Lawmakers rebuke US ‘digital protectionism’ charges

Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger during a visit to Silicon Valley this week

Günther Oettinger [European Commission]

EU lawmakers have spoken out against accusations that Europe is promoting protectionism aimed at damaging American technology firms.

Fifty-one MEPs signed a letter striking back at US politicians’ claims that EU regulations of tech companies are attempts to deflate American companies’ success.

“As Members of European Parliament we are surprised and concerned about the strong statements coming from US sources about regulatory and legislative proposals on the digital agenda for the EU. While many of these are still in very early stages, President Obama spoke of ‘digital protectionism’, and many in the private sector echo similar words,” the MEPs’ letter begins.

Google is the most prominent American tech giant currently facing antitrust charges from the European Commission. The consultation on online platforms launching this week has been criticised for targeting companies like Google and Apple.

MEPs from the ALDE, EPP, ECR, Greens and S&D groups signed onto the letter, which was sent to members of Congress and calls cooperation between the US and EU “vital”..

Highlighting their agreement across the political divide, the MEPs wrote, “We have different ideas on privacy and platforms, net neutrality and encryption, Bitcoin, zero-days or copyright.”

“While we admire the dynamism and success of Silicon Valley, we trust in Europe’s ability to foster talent, creativity and entrepreneurship. The acronym ‘GAFA’ is not one we ever use, and we do not see legislation as a way to manage the growth of companies,” the letter reads, referring to the acronym for “Google Apple Facebook Amazon” that cropped up in France.

Earlier this year, Obama told the website Re/Code, “We have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it in ways that they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is just designed to carve out some of their commercial interests.”

>>Read: Antitrust lawyers offer (almost) free advice for ‘victims of Google’

German MEP Julia Reda (Pirate Party), a signatory of the letter, told EURACTIV that the legislators wanted the letter to show they’re taking “a decidedly European approach to tech policy, but denounce any anti-American stereotypes”.

“Sharp rhetoric about American tech companies is not uncommon in Brussels. I get the feeling that some EU politicians approach the sector with a defeatist attitude, failing to support policies that could foster a dynamic tech industry in Europe, such as net neutrality, a single European copyright or an ambitious broadband rollout, because they don’t feel Europe can catch up with Silicon Valley,” Reda said.

“Unfortunately, this attitude may end up stifling innovation in the EU and is sometimes also taken by US commentators as a means of discrediting any European technology policies, even when they serve to protect fundamental rights, such as the data protection regulation,” she added.

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE) also signed the letter. Schaake said she’d noticed “serious misunderstandings between Americans and Europeans creeping into discussions on the digital single market” and differences were “mostly political, and not necessarily EU vs US.”

>>Read: Officials call for TTIP digital trade boost as US-EU tech tensions linger

Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger is visiting Silicon Valley and Washington this week to meet with US regulators and executives of Facebook, Google, Apple and eBay. Oettinger is rumoured to announce the launch of the controversial consultation on platforms while he’s in Silicon Valley.

In a blog post before taking off for California at the start of this week, Oettinger dismissed accusations that the Commission’s tech policies target foreign companies. “I know that many in the U.S. are worried that our aim with the Digital Single Market is to benefit only European companies,” he wrote.

“Europe is ready to listen to the concerns and suggestions of the US. But we will not be lectured or pressured to back off from asking tough questions, nor impressed by cheap claims of ‘over-regulation.’”

Oettinger just missed EU Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli, who was on a similar tour of Silicon Valley last week.

Buttarelli announced earlier this month that he’s setting up an independent board to advise on technology ethics, which he said will likely include members from the US.

>>Read: EU privacy watchdog planning international board on tech ethics

The European Commission accused Google of distorting web search results to favour its shopping service. In April, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the American tech giant, which dominates Internet search engines worldwide, had been sent a Statement of Objections - effectively a charge sheet - to which it can respond by the end of August. A final resolution - possibly involving court action if Google does not choose to settle - is likely to take many months and probably years.

The European Commission presented its plans for the digital single market in May 2015 and announced that it would make concrete proposals on 16 initiatives in 2015 and 2016. The Commission also announced that it would launch an inquiry into online 'platforms', widely perceived to be a move to target large US-based tech companies.

European Parliament

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