The writer is a vice-president of the European parliament
Just before New Year’s Eve, thousands of apps were removed from Apple’s Chinese app store on the orders of Beijing because they lacked a state licence or a local partner. These apps were not malware or harmful, and the move was not done to protect consumers. While there may have been economic reasons, the law is really just a tool of the Chinese state that seeks an internet subject to total control — where you are free to do and say what you like, as long as it is in line with official policy.
I believe we must do all we can to ensure that Europe does not follow this path, even with the best intentions.
In December 2020, the European Commission launched two proposed laws to address the uncontrolled growth of the tech groups. Apart from the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, this is the EU’s first real attempt to regulate the internet. If passed, the laws will affect both businesses and consumers and they have many positive points, such as transparency requirements, which I fully support.
Nevertheless, we must state the truth: these proposals target US companies. The businesses are both loved and hated, but no one can deny they are vital to the European economy and the lives of millions in the bloc. There are few, if any, European companies at this level.
For China, the answer to the power of the US tech companies was not to compete but to force most out of the country and strictly control the rest. In the meantime, Beijing created national champions that I believe have copied ideas from outside — such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu — while being protected within the Chinese bubble.
Some European countries are also seeking tight control. In the name of fighting hate speech or protecting consumers, they are pushing to erect barriers to non-European services and data flows, to create European champions funded by public money. The EU is about to create our own standards for what is acceptable online and punish global sites that do not meet them. In other words, a European internet.
If the European internet is a European walled garden, with a European firewall, that would be no solution to the power of the tech groups and would only harm our citizens. Today, we live in a world where there are two internets: there is the Chinese and there is everyone else. The answer is not artificially to create a third. Cutting ourselves off would make Europe as insular as China is.
What preserves the transatlantic link is common online cultural and societal bonds. That spreads European influence to the US and beyond. We want to create a stronger role for Europe in the digital world. So now is the time to create common European-US regulation of Big Tech and the internet in general.
We should seek a better way to strengthen our links, based on common values and rights. The days of laissez-faire internet are over. In the US Congress, both political parties have underlined this, especially since the storming of the Capitol whipped up on social media. The US government is likely to act soon. We must engage with the Biden administration now towards a common transatlantic regulation, which will maintain our global internet without new digital borders.
Over 60 per cent of global gross domestic product is predicted to be digital by 2022 and the US-EU combined currently account for more than 40 per cent of total GDP. If the choice is to be behind a digital world limited to our shores, where competition and knowledge are stifled, or common multilateral rules based on fundamental freedoms and openness, I will be the biggest supporter of the latter.
In the European parliament, I will work to make sure any new laws respect the essential principles of internet freedom and do not close Europe off. The Chinese model is not the way to go. For all its good intentions, Europe going it alone would be the first step to just that.