The European Union has recently passed two landmark legislations for the digital era: the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). These two pieces of legislation are fundamental in a time where online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon are increasingly prevalent and indispensable. The European Union has taken a critical look at Big Tech's role, its monopoly and how citizens and users can be offered more protection.
Big Tech's evolutionary issues
Since their conception in the early 2000s, technology companies have gone from garage-based start-ups to globally known and billion-dollar industries. Their size and recognition have allowed for an amassing of power that is unimaginable to the ordinary person (Zuboff, 2019). Even more incredible is the lack of safeguards and mechanisms in place to prevent this exponential growth from being harmful to users around the world.
Indeed, with their immense growth has come several instances of malpractice such as privacy infringements, lack of content moderation and the development of autonomous algorithms which suggest content to users without being supervised (Electronic Frontier Foundation, n.d). These are harmful practices that impede the internet from retaining its status as a place where individuals can express themselves freely, gain access to a broad range of information and ultimately have choice over how they spend their time online. Big Tech (known as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) has additionally made it impossible for alternatives to their platforms to develop; they monopolise the technology market leaving users little to no choice in choosing their products rather than looking for safer alternatives with a greater regard for user privacy (Stolton, 2022).
Additionally, controlling Big Tech is a challenge to today's states. Big Tech's global nature means that bringing them under one law is tricky and does not halt their systemic problems (Stanley, n.d). What's more, Big Tech collectively is an economic powerhouse and brings in revenue to countries around the globe. Especially in the United States, the financial advantages of Silicon Valley are not to be undermined. Nevertheless, regulation is important and possible, as demonstrated by the European Union.
Regulation is crucial
Given this, what exactly do the DMA and the DSA provide European citizens with? In order to answer this question, a brief overview of the content of the legislation is called for. The core purpose of the Digital Services Act is to define the responsibilities and obligations of the companies that provide services such as messaging, emailing, web-hosting and other such online platforms (Stolton, 2022). The European Union has strived to harmonise rules so that the internet, and the platforms most used online, can be trusted to protect users, fundamental rights. Concretely, this means that Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other companies with more than 45 million monthly users will have to show authorities within EU Member States and designated authorities within the EU that they are taking initiative to remove harm (European Commission, 2022). Harm in this sense is understood as any dangers to users that come from the design of a platform, how the algorithm works, how the platform functions and how it is used (European Commission, 2022).
This entails that large technology companies will have to carry out risk assessments and look at how illegal content is spread and whether there are any negative effects on fundamental rights, civic discourse, electoral processes, gender-based violence or public security (Amnesty International, 2022). The DSA will require many Big Tech companies to completely rethink their way of working. They may not be able to recommend content in the same manner anymore nor have the same harmful advertising systems, based on the systematic surveillance of the user.
The Digital Markets Act is more focused on preventing Big Tech from dominating the technological market and preventing other companies from being able to compete. This is extremely necessary from a human rights perspective as it helps to ensure that the online world remains a fair space where users are able to choose what platforms best suit them rather than automatically resorting to Google as a search engine (Moore & Tambini, 2021). This has sent shockwaves through executives of the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon as it means that they will no longer be able to favour their own platforms. Much of their revenue comes from the cumulation of services like Google Search, Google Mail and Google Maps (Stolton, 2022. Without these being built into Android and Apple products, they stand to lose a substantial amount of their annual income.
The EU as a regulatory leader
The measures that the European Union are taking to protect citizens from the harms of Big Tech are singular and unique in the world. The EU has identified the risk that technology of this kind presents to our human rights, online as well as offline. Big Tech is synonymous with surveillance and manipulation (Zuboff, 2019). Not only that, but it is incompatible with the right to privacy; it threatens freedom of opinion as well as the freedom of thought, equality and non-discrimination. As these platforms become more automated, the flaws only increase without the watchful eye of a knowledgeable person.
The way that human rights are treated online reflects offline dynamics. Making sure that the internet remains a safe space, unencumbered by the immoral and authoritarian practices of companies and ill-intended states is essential to develop a digitalised world further.