Zuckerberg appeals for European leadership on platform regulation

The founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has called upon the European Union to take the lead in establishing a legal framework for the regulation of online platforms, in order to resist other models of online governance, such as China’s, which do not appeal to Western values.

Zuckerberg’s comments come ahead of the European Commission’s presentation of its Digital Services Act later this year, which aims to regulate the online ecosystem across a range of areas including political advertising and offensive content.

Speaking to the EU’s Internal Market Chief Thierry Breton as part of a video conference hosted by the Centre on Regulation in Europe (CERRE) on Monday (18 May), Zuckerberg said that while regulation of the online domain is inevitable, there remains a vacuum in terms of an influential governance framework.

“I think that there is a model that is coming out of countries like China, that tend to have very different values than Western countries that are more democratic,” Zuckerberg said but added that he believes the Chinese model of online governance could be ‘attractive’ to many countries.

“I think that that’s really dangerous and I worry about that kind of model spreading to other countries,” he said. “The best antidote to that is having a clear regulatory framework that comes out of Western democratic countries.”

“When Europe sets policies, they often become the standard around the world,” Zuckerberg added, citing the EU’s general data protection regulation as a recent example.

‘Gatekeeper regulation’

On the specifics of a future regulatory framework in the platform economy, Breton pointed to measures anticipated as part of the Digital Services Act, focusing on the gatekeeping power of digital platforms – the capacity of online giants to dominate markets at the disadvantage of smaller players.

“The platforms could play an extremely important, even systemic, role of gatekeepers,” Breton said, adding that in such a situation the reliance of Europe’s SMEs on the platform is substantial.

The executive has already started work in this area. In recent papers seen by EURACTIV, the European Commission is to contract a study on the gatekeeping, or market-dominating, power of digital platforms in a bid to gather evidence which could feed into the upcoming Digital Services Act.

A call for tenders document, detailing an upper limit of €600,000 for the study, states that the research should include “robust data and insights as regards issues linked with significant network effects [and] gatekeeping power.”

Breton also highlighted on Monday two areas that would be part of the EU’s gatekeeper regulation: fair access to data for smaller businesses and data ownership.

While the Frenchman adopted a stringent approach on the importance of safeguarding personal data in line with EU data protection legislation on the data ownership point, he also noted that making most of the EU’s industrial data is a priority for the Commission, and allowing for fair access to it is an area for the upcoming regulation to focus on.

“We have to work hard together to make sure that the next huge industrial data platform layer will be European, because I think we have everything here, including the market,” Breton said,  in comments that were in line with the European strategy for data, a communication from the executive published in February.

On that occasion, Commission President von der Leyen said the EU would seek to exploit the “untapped potential” of vast troves of industrial data, allowing public and private actors “easy access” to huge reserves of information.

Data ownership

The cracks between Zuckerberg and Breton were most evident on the point of data ownership. Although Breton adopted an unambiguous stance on data ownership, claiming that more and more EU citizens will request the right to ownership over their data, Zuckerberg said that the issue was not so clear cut.

“All of the hard questions are in how you define what is your data, and especially in the context of social services, what is another person’s data?” Zuckerberg said, referencing the Cambridge Analytica scandal as one of the reasons why the clearer rules on data ownership and portability need to be defined.

Earlier on Monday, Breton had fielded questions from MEPs in the European Parliament’s Internal Market Committee and noted a number of broad goals in the post-coronavirus digital ecosystem for Europe, including a strengthened data economy and legislation for data sharing.

On the clout of Europe’s digital sector amid a polarised geopolitical landscape, the EU’s internal market chief told MEPs that while the continent is not closed, “we don’t want to be naive.”

“We can see the changing balances of power in the world and we don’t want Europe to become a battlefield for China and the US.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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