President of the European Commission: Here's what the EU is doing to limit the power of tech giants

GettyPresident of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen
  • President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, responds to an open letter from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner about regulating large tech companies.
  • She writes that the political power of tech giants needs to be limited, and lays out steps the European Union is already taking to protect consumers.
  • Ursula von der Leyen is the president of the European Commission.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Dear Mr Döpfner,

Many thanks for your kind open letter.

By chance, on the same day your letter was published online, I spoke at the virtual World Economic Forum in Davos, on the very topic you raised — namely the darker side of digitalization.

The growing power of the largest internet platforms — and their incredible economic and even political influence — also leaves me increasingly concerned.

I share your opinion that we cannot only talk about the great promise of the digital world — we must also talk about the problems it is creating for our economies, our societies, and our democracy.

This recently hit home when I watched on television as the angry mob stormed the US Capitol.

I found those images deeply unsettling. This is what happens when actions follow words. This is what happens when messages spread by online platforms and social media become a threat to democracy.


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It’s time for Europe to take private data from the hands of powerful tech monopolies and give it back to the people

We should see those images from the United States as a warning. Despite all the basic trust in our European democracy, we in Europe are not immune to such a turn of events.

It is easy to say that democratic values are part of our DNA. And this is, of course, true. However, it is essential for us to protect our democracy each and every day and to preserve our institutions from the influence of hate speech, disinformation, fake news, and incitement to violence.

We need to limit the political power of internet giants

The business model of online platforms not only has an impact on free and fair competition — it also has an impact on our democracies, our security, and the quality of our information. This is why we need to limit, by democratic means, the huge and, as of now, largely unchecked political power of the internet giants.

In a world where polarising opinions are the most likely to be heard, it is a short step from outlandish conspiracy theories to the death of a police officer. This was sadly exposed by the storming of the Capitol.

Let me first make one thing clear to avoid any misunderstandings in our discussion.

We in Europe prize innovation. We are enthusiastic about the wonders of modern technology. And we are curious about new things. German publishers are no different in this regard. They also tirelessly strive to adapt their publications to new, digital formats and test out what and what does not interest their readers.

Moreover, every day now the pandemic is showing us how much digital applications — from home schooling to the home office — can help us. That is why we in Europe have decided to focus on digitalization alongside climate protection in the post-Corona crisis recovery. 20% of the money from our NextGenerationEU recovery programme will be spent on digital projects — whether to support the vibrant start-up scene in Lisbon or Sofia, to strengthen links between universities and research institutions, or to build a European cloud.

Nevertheless, with all openness to the innovations of the digital world, Europe must never forget whom these applications are ultimately intended to serve — our citizens. For us, neither the market nor the state, but rather the people, are at the centre of our European approach.

That is why in December the Commission launched the Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Act. That is our new framework for the digital market and for our society.

To put it very simply, we want to ensure that going forward what is unlawful in the analogue world is also unlawful online — just as you demanded in your letter.

We also want the platforms to provide transparency regarding how their algorithms work. Decisions with extensive consequences for our democracy must not be made by computer programs over which no human has control.

We also want clear requirements for internet firms to accept responsibility for the way in which they distribute, promote, and remove content — as well as identifying and mitigating the systemic risk that they can pose.

Another thing is important to me: however tempting it may have been for Twitter to switch off former President Donald Trump’s account, such serious interference with freedom of expression should not be based on company rules alone.

There must be a legal framework for such far-reaching decisions. And that legal framework should be decided by parliaments and politicians, not managers in Silicon Valley.

You are calling for measures to prevent large gatekeeper platforms from storing personally specific and sensitive data, and from using that data for commercial purposes.

And it is true that whenever we visit a website and are asked to create a profile or when we conveniently register with a large platform, we have no idea what happens to our data.

That is why Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff talks of “surveillance capitalism” in her seminal work, which you quote. And in the documentary “The Social Dilemma” we see how large platforms are interested in us, the users, as the product. The more they learn about us, the more valuable we are to them. That allows them to inundate us with targeted advertising and, in turn, to increase their revenue.

How we intend to protect our consumers and their data

Here are three examples of what we intend to do in order to protect our consumers and their data even better in the future.

First, under our Digital Services Act, the large internet platforms — in other words those with more than 45 million users in the EU — have specific obligations. For example, in the future they will have to give their users the option of preventing recommendations of further content that are based on profiling, i.e. the systematic analysis of their data by computer programs.

Second, we are reinforcing the provisions of our General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Although it only went into effect in 2018, the GDPR has already become a model for large parts of the world. This disproves your assertion that Europe almost always reacts too late. On the contrary, we were the ones who set standards early with the GDPR.

In the future, we want to use our Digital Markets Act to prohibit large internet platforms from automatically combining their users’ personal data collected from their main platform into a single profile with additional data from other services. This is how we intend to ward off the transparent consumer you so strongly warn against in your letter, and rightly so. It will also ensure that competition remains fair.

Third, in consultation with our Member States, we will also propose a secure European identity this year and thereby provide our citizens with an alternative way of navigating the internet without reservations — whether that be to pay taxes, enroll in university, or rent an electric car.

We are not only taking into account the concerns of our citizens with these initiatives. We are also complying with the obligations arising from European fundamental rights — in Europe the internet has long since ceased to be the Wild West.

Articles Seven and Eight of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights safeguard the right to privacy and family life as well as the right to protection of personal data. These basic rights do not just exist on paper. As you have seen, they also guide us when legislating.

And they have teeth in the courts. For example, you need only recall the two Schrems judgments, in which European Court of Justice declared instruments for transferring personal data to third countries unlawful. The result is that digital companies must guarantee EU standards are applied when they transfer personal data outside the EU. Failing this, forwarding of the data is prohibited.

Potential cooperation with Washington

You are no doubt relieved, as I am, that President Joe Biden’s election means Europe once again has a friend in the White House. Indeed the first signals we hear from the new administration are promising, including possible cooperation on digital matters.

As a first step, I could envisage a joint Trade and Technology Council in which we agree on standards and norms.

Together with the United States we could also create a digital rulebook which would have global effects. This could deal with matters ranging from data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. It would be a rulebook based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion, and the protection of privacy. Even a project which until recently we believed we might have to implement without our American friends — the introduction of a digital tax — suddenly seems once more to be something we could address jointly.

You refer in your letter to the relentless rise of the large tech companies and their market value, which is soaring in this period of crisis. You contrast this with the estimated loss of 255 million jobs worldwide between January 2020 and January 2021. I am also concerned about how this crisis is increasing inequalities. Restaurant operators and business owners who closed down temporarily in order to ensure that we are all better protected against the virus now fear for their existence as a result of the lockdown.

At the same time, many large internet groups are doing tremendous amounts of business — including some that are not yet even properly taxed in Europe.

That is unfair, and we can no longer expect people to stand for it.

Please do not misunderstand me. Our internal market, with access to 450 million consumers, exists to do business, and we invite companies from around the world to benefit from this unique opportunity.

In return we expect that they contribute to financing all the things that make our single market so strong — schools and universities, research and infrastructure, reliable public institutions, and a health service which, day after day in this crisis, is demonstrating its resilience.

We would therefore like to step up discussions about a tax of this kind within the framework of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and hope to achieve agreement with the US there, too.

But we remain determined to find a solution, if necessary on our own in Europe, in the course of this year.

Dear Mr Döpfner, as you can see, we are already hard at work, using the many levers at Europe’s disposal, because Europe is there to serve its citizens. That applies in both the analogue world and online. Without restrictions.

Best regards,

Ursula von der Leyen

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