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Europe’s tech ambition: To be the world’s digital policeman

When people started surfing the web about 30 years ago, life was pretty simple. It might have taken minutes — if not longer — to get online, but when you were connected, there were few restrictions on what you could do, reported POLITICO. Fast forward to 2017, and the world is a very different place. China’s “Great Firewall” has blocked a vast array of digital services. Policymakers from Brazil to Bangladesh are looking to rein in the activities of some of the world’s largest tech companies. And a growing list of lawmakers elsewhere is also expanding countries’ offline laws into the online world. At the center of this global tussle between technology and politics stands Europe, whose policymakers have set their sights on becoming the de facto global arbiters for how companies — and, in some cases, their users — behave online. It’s an ambitious task with many supporters, in Europe and further afield, hoping to bring these mostly Silicon Valley tech giants down a peg or two. But Europe’s aggressive push to control the digital world also may come with some serious downsides. For every attempt to rein in the activities of Google or Facebook, among others, the Continent’s lawmakers could embolden the efforts of more repressive regimes worldwide to tighten their own grip on what happens online. And if more and more countries impose their own rules on the web, such a race to define the digital world may eventually carve up the global nature of our online lives into a Balkanized version of the internet. Europeans officials are already expanding digital rules for data privacy and are clamping down on what can be published online. That’s certainly not what European lawmakers are hoping for, but it is a stark reminder of the law of unintended consequences. “As Europe, we must set the global standards,” said Věra Jourová, the European commissioner for justice, who will travel to Washington next month to discuss how the U.S. can keep pace with European digital privacy rules, which already are among the toughest in the world. Europe’s ambition to become the world’s digital policeman may sound surprising to those who scoff at the region’s inability to keep pace with the United States and China in churning out tech giants from Google and Amazon to Alibaba and Tencent. But that lackluster record hasn’t stopped Europe’s lawmakers from seeking to export the bloc’s growing list of digital rules beyond its borders, aiming to expand its hands-on approach to technology to all four corners of the planet (with, importantly, the significant exception of China). The battle lines are already being drawn, potentially creating cracks in the digital world as countries vie to control the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Uber. Europeans officials are already expanding digital rules for data privacy and are clamping down on what can be published online. Some also openly balk at the dominance of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest. In June, Brussels-based policymakers fined Google a record €2.4 billion for flaunting the region’s antitrust rules, and they are pursuing two separate cases into the search giant’s alleged abuse of its dominant position. The company denies wrongdoing. European authorities are even questioning where tech companies pay their taxes as they rake in record profits across ever-expanding global empires. Last year, the European Commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion in back taxes to Ireland. (The company and Irish government are appealing.) Both cases are likely to be back in the headlines this fall. Google must comply with EU demands to open up some of its search services by the end of September and judges may start to hear appeals against Apple’s blockbuster fine. Central to Europe’s regulatory zeal is a fundamentally different take on the role of government in people’s lives compared to the United States — still home to the Western world’s largest tech companies. American politicians have often given digital giants relatively free rein when it comes to our search queries, social media posts and e-commerce purchases. Contrast that to Europe where lawmakers — now bit players in a world dominated by these tech giants — have balked at allowing a small number of companies to dominate large swathes of our daily digital lives. The Continent’s policymakers have woken up to the fact that people now interact more regularly, and often have greater affinity, with digital services like Twitter and Uber than they do with their elected officials. And they have started to take action. “It was inevitable that there would be this type of struggle,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and an advocate for limited oversight of the web. “The internet was not created along national borders.” Many American policymakers and executives view European reservations towards these tech companies as mere sour grapes. The Continent can’t keep pace, they claim. And with few other options available, the region’s politicians have turned up their anti-American rhetoric to full blast. That argument misses the point. Europe’s efforts to corral the digital world are part of a longstanding tradition of the Continent’s governments taking a more paternalistic (some would say overly-interventionist) stance to their citizens’ lives, compared to the United States. In the U.S., lawmakers have been happy to allow new technologies to sprint ahead while regulation struggles to catch up. Europeans (in general) have been more wary — quicker to question the effects of rapid changes on wider society and more willing to hit the brakes when digital advances overturn the status quo. Read more at politico.eu

Aug. 21, 2017, 10:37 a.m. EDITED
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Europe’s tech ambition: To be the world’s digital policeman