European hammer of justice to fall on big tech?

The European Union paves the way to rein-in big technology.
1 November 2022

“Worshipful Master’s Gavel” by mrbill is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • EU Digital Markets Act will force interoperability between competing services and protocols.
  • Digital Services Act to oversee algorithms’ effects on the people of the European Union.

The annual revenues of many tech giants dwarf the GDPs of most nations. In resources and in terms of global influence, big tech companies are effectively significant world powers, seemingly operating outside or above national jurisdictions and concerns. The ubiquity of big technology companies’ services makes them able to act almost as a law unto themselves. There is no right of recourse, other than not to use many services, and doing so can make life extremely difficult for the individual.

However, that situation is likely to change, at least in the European Union (EU) – the bloc of countries on the European mainland comprising 27 nation states and with a total internet-using population of over 400 million. Change is coming with a new EU-wide law that comes into effect November 1, the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The DMA is designed to break down the closed nature of many common digital applications and open jealously-guarded proprietary services and protocols to competition and interoperability.

The most-quoted example is iOS users’ inability to load and run apps from any source other than the Apple App Store. To date there’s been a blanket ban, baked into every iteration of iOS, on sideloading applications from third parties. After the Digital Markets Act comes into effect, EU residents should, by law, be able to do just that – download compiled iOS app files, load and run them on their iPhone or iPad, all without hindrance from any element in the operating system.

Slowly does it for the Digital Markets Act

The November 1 deadline is not, however, going to change things overnight. Bureaucracy moves slowly, and the EU is well-known for proceeding at a pace that’s hardly white-knuckle. The measures in the DMA only affect large companies, and the EU is yet to decide how “large companies” are defined[pdf]. It’s expected that ten or twelve organizations will be affected initially, and few readers could fail to name a good number: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Meta, Amazon, Samsung, and so on.

Although the EU moves slowly, when it does move, it moves effectively. Antitrust investigations in the past have forced Apple to pay tax on EU sales, made Microsoft stop promoting its Internet Explorer browser over its competitors’ browsers[pdf], and has recently backed French regulators currently forcing Google to pay French news sites’ owners for the material it scrapes.

And while Australia and South Korea are making similar legislative inroads into what many see as market abuses of monopoly positions by big tech in those countries, the sheer mass of population and conjoined governments the EU represents makes this legislation important for big tech’s global policies.

One such effect of the new laws will be the enforced opening-up of messaging protocols and platforms, meaning that Apple Messages, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger will have to be interoperable with smaller, lesser-known messaging apps like Telegram, Signal, and Session.

Round Two: the Digital Services Act

There’s also a second EU law waiting in the wings, the Digital Services Act (DSA), which will force big tech into transparent risk assessments of the societal effects of their back-end algorithms, and make large technology companies accountable for bias in, for example, the AI engines used to power their platforms.

This second tranche of legislation will require the setting up of a whole new arm of bureaucracy (something that the EU does really too well) with plenty of on-site data experts as guides. The European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency will act as arbiter between large companies and national digital rights bodies, generally overseeing big tech’s effects on the bloc.

While previous efforts like GDPR have been arguably effective in at least raising awareness of the effects of big data and technology on all our lives, the new DMA and DSA will, in all likelihood, evolve from the form in which they start out.

Nevertheless, having a body as powerful as the EU draw some kind of line in the sand between rampant digital laissez-faire and the rights of the citizen will be comforting for those who still believe that government has a role to play in the welfare of its people.