Digital Bridge: Europe’s content enforcers — US privacy dilemma — Tech summit-palooza

Digital Bridge: Europe’s content enforcers — US privacy dilemma — Tech summit-palooza
Опубликовано: Thursday, 16 March 2023 18:35

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HOWDY FROM EUROSTAR’S DEPARTURE LOUNGE. This is Digital Bridge, and I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent, and this is how I’m feeling as we hurtle toward the second quarter of 2023. Remember: Be kind to yourselves.

We’re going hard on policymaking this week:

— There’s a disconnect between the expectations and reality of Europe’s upcoming social media rules.

Washington has a choice to make: Go hard on comprehensive federal privacy legislation or focus on the kids.

— A series of recent global digital-focused summits show how integral tech has become to geopolitics.


THERE’S A PREVAILING NARRATIVE out there about the European Union’s so-called Digital Services Act. These new rules, which will start to bite next summer, involve the largest social media companies carrying out lengthy risk assessments on how their platforms are used; clamping down on illegal material like hate speech; allowing outsiders greater access to their inner workings; and, if found to have breached the new standards, facing hefty fines of up to 6 percent of global revenue. In short, it’s a big deal.

What’s not to like, amirite? Wherever I go (outside of Brussels), people can’t wait for this rulebook to kick in. That’s especially true in the United States, where regulators, politicians and academics look on enviously at the new oversight Brussels is about to wield to stop the excesses of social media ruining democracy. But I have bad news: Everyone is going to be disappointed. It’s not that these rules aren’t going to have an impact. It’s just there are too many unknowns right now to categorically say Europe’s social media laws are going to be the panacea that many hope for.

Let’s unpack the pain points. First, who’s in charge? The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, or DG CONNECT, has been given new enforcement powers. Here’s a handy chart of everyone you should know. Many of these officials helped draft the new rules. But few, if any, have regulatory experience and they’ll need to learn on the fly — all while implementing world-first legislation that must determine what is, and is not, illegal on social media. That will inevitably lead to some failures or missteps.

In discussions with those who have crossed paths with Europe’s new content police, two trends come up repeatedly. No one denies that the officials are smart … but they are either viewed as out of their depth — in terms of what parts of the new playbook should be the short-term priority — or as somewhat naive to think companies are going to hand over information without juicing the figures in their own favor. It may sound obvious, but enforcement and policymaking are different skill sets.

There’s also the question of money. Under Europe’s content rules, EU officials have access to a levy on the largest social media giants, expected to be about $35 million a year, that will start to be collected in the fall. That sounds like a lot of money. But if you’re delving into everything from auditing companies’ algorithms for potential bias to ensuring platforms remove illegal content (and can prove that they have done so), that pile of cash starts to look pretty small. (It’s not a like-for-like comparison, but the U.S. Federal Trade Commission‘s budget last year topped out at $376.5 million.)

Then, there’s staffing. Thierry Breton, Europe’s internal market commissioner, said DG CONNECT would get 100 more people to enforce both the new content and separate antitrust rules, known as the Digital Markets Act. That includes techies in the newly-created European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency, a primarily Seville-based agency providing technical expertise for both policymaking and investigations. Even after the raft of Big Tech job cuts, companies still have in-house expertise that’s significantly bigger than what European regulators will have at their disposal. When it comes to upholding cases in a court of law (when companies inevitably appeal large fines and onerous remedies), Brussels must make sure it’s not bringing a knife to a gunfight in terms of tech know-how.

I get it; this all sounds very doom and gloom. And for those in countries without any meaningful online content rules on the books (ahem, the U.S.), beggars can’t be choosers. But there needs to be an open discussion about what Brussels’ content police can — and, importantly, cannot — do with the new powers at their disposal. Will it fix social media within the first year? No. Will it lead to gradual change that will take years to bear fruit? Probably. Patience isn’t a virtue that many of us possess. But when it comes to turning the Digital Services Act into a reality, we all better find some — and find it quickly.

“We have a very long history of failure in public intervention in this area,” Filippo Lancieri, a researcher at ETH Zurich, who just published an in-depth analysis (funded by U.K. and French regulators alongside Google, TikTok and of potential trouble areas within Europe’s new online content and digital antitrust rules alongside New York University’s Laura Edelson and Tilburg University’s Inge Graef. “We’re breaking new ground here.”


EVEN BEFORE U.S. PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN name-checked children’s privacy rights in his State of the Union address, a political calculation was underway in Washington. After failure during the last congressional session to get comprehensive data protection reforms through both chambers, is it better to swing for the fences again and try to get those rules passed — or pull back on people’s expectations to focus more squarely on protecting kids online? Ahead of next year’s election, that pendulum is shifting toward children.

That’s not to say Republicans aren’t going to bring back the so-called American Data Privacy and Protection Act, or ADPPA, via the U.S. House of Representatives, as early as later this month. Those proposals would update the country’s decades-old (and mostly sectoral) privacy standards. But lawmakers, especially those in California, which has its own data protection standards already in place, couldn’t agree on how these proposals would 1. allow people to sue companies for potential wrongdoing and 2. override (or pre-empt) existing state-based rules, some of which supporters say provide higher protections than those proposed at the state level.

For sure, the politics of this debate have changed now that Nancy Pelosi is no longer speaker of the House and Kevin McCarthy, another California politician who now holds that position, is less eager to support his state’s alleged left-leaning data protection standards. But Maria Cantwell, a prominent senator from Washington state, remains a vocal opponent to ADPPA, mostly because she doesn’t think it goes far enough in enforcement. Without compromise, there’s less than a 50 percent chance of getting comprehensive privacy rules over the line.

So that’s why protecting kids online — who doesn’t want that? – has become the de facto fallback option for both political parties. At a federal level, there are two options: either the Kids Online Safety Act or the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, or updates to laws dating from 1998. Details of both proposals are here and here. But, in short, they would provide greater safeguards for how kids interact within digital services, including requirements for companies to reduce the amount of data they collect on minors by default.

Washington, though, isn’t the only game in town when it comes to kids’ privacy. Last year, California enacted its so-called Age Appropriate Design Code, a carbon copy of rules already on the books in the United Kingdom that forced the likes of TikTok, YouTube and Facebook to drastically alter their offerings to children in the name of reducing how much data these companies collected on them. Much of that credit goes to Beeban Kidron, a British baroness — and director of the second “Bridget Jones” film — who lobbied hard, first in London, then in Sacramento, to get those laws passed. (She even outlined that in Digital Bridge.)

Other states are now following suit. New Mexico, Oregon, New York, Minnesota and Maryland are all now pushing ahead with their own versions of the code. Others, like Wisconsin, may also soon get in on the act. Some of this is party politics ahead of next year’s election. But speaking to lawmakers across the U.S., I got the sense there was a lot of bipartisan support for measures that would reduce how much data companies can collect on children — and how that information would then be used for commercial gain.

This double-whammy, at both the federal and state levels, to get something (anything!) linked to privacy on the books this year may lead to an outcome I would not have predicted: the U.S. actually passing digital legislation. Sure, I may be proved wrong. But the momentum is building and the focus on children’s privacy is a much easier proposal to pass — and, cynically, harder to lobby against — compared with wide-ranging comprehensive data protection reforms.

**Join us next week, March 21, for a discussion about who should fund telecommunications infrastructures at POLITICO Live’s event “Telecoms drumbeat for the future of connectivity, moderated by Mathieu Pollet, tech reporter at POLITICO. Register here.**




EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK, officials are doing digital deals. Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s digital chief, is finishing up a three-country tour of South America where she announced a so-called EU-Latin America Digital Alliance. Gina Raimondo, the U.S. commerce secretary, signed a separate agreement with India on semiconductor supply chains and innovation. The leaders of the U.S., the U.K. and Australia jetted into San Diego to double down on their so-called AUKUS agreement, which included a series of tech-related announcements linked to national security (read: China). U.S. President Joe Biden also made announcement with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, about clean technologies and, again, pushing back against China.

You would expect Digital Bridge, a newsletter focused on the geopolitics of tech, to highlight such meetings. But, coming one after another, it’s a clear statement of how much technology — everything from semiconductors to undersea cables to nuclear submarines — is now central to global policymaking. Do officials really understand all the digital things they talk about? Definitely not. Are they technically literate in ways that would help shape proposals? Almost certainly not (that’s what experts are for). Yet it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that the geopolitics of tech is no longer a one-off. It’s core to how countries view the world.


WE’RE GOING SLIGHTLY OFF-PISTE this week to focus on Timofey Vasiliev, a former Russian journalist who is behind the popular Russian-language Telegram channel, War on Fakes, which has garnered more than 700,000 subscribers by “fact-checking” Western claims linked to Moscow’s invasion of its western neighbor in ways that have promoted Kremlin propaganda.

Until Wednesday, no one knew who was behind War on Fakes, which tried unsuccessfully to expand its reach beyond Russia via similar fake fact-checking operations in English, Spanish and Arabic. But Logically, a disinformation-focused research group, linked Vasiliev to War on Fakes via so-called Whois data that showed the Russian was the owner of the website that has been promoted heavily by Russian government social media accounts.

“He’s working on Russian state TV,” Kyle Walter, a researcher at Logically, told me when I asked him how connected Vasiliev was to the Kremlin. He currently fronts a “debunking” television show on a government-backed outlet. “So as much as we consider that working for the Russian government, I would say yes, he’s working with the Russian government.”


“Because of a funding shortfall, we have come to the difficult decision to mothball the Ad Observatory project, the free, public dashboard providing ways to track digital misinformation and messaging trends in political ads on Facebook and Instagram,” researchers at New York University said on Monday in reference to a widely-used tool (including by me) to track paid-for partisan messages on Meta’s platforms.


— The U.S. should pursue a new digital foreign policy focused on a “digital policy lab” to foster domestic policymaking, a “technology task force” to promote international cooperation, and promotion of the White House-led Declaration for the Future of the Internet, argue Karen Kornbluh and Julia Trehu at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

— The EU and the U.K. have a first-mover advantage when it comes to digital rulemaking, while the U.S. is stuck in first gear, claims Tom Wheeler for the Brookings Institution.

— Mark Zuckerberg outlined a “year of efficiency,” including 10,000 more job cuts and a further 5,000 additional vacancies that won’t be filled, in an open letter to Meta employees.

— A far-right extremist killed members of the LGBTQ+ community in Slovakia last year, and social media platforms had a mixed track record in how they responded to this crime online, according to a report for the country’s regulatory Council for Media Services.

— As regulators and researchers scramble to come up with ways to improve transparency in online platforms, the question everyone should ask themselves is: What impact has this led to? That’s according to Brandon Silverman, the CrowdTangle co-founder, writing on his Substack.

— Want to know more about ChatGPT 4.0 (editor’s note: groan)? Here’s everything you need to know.

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