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America should learn from the world’s tech reforms

March 21, 2022, 5:32 PM UTC

With each passing day, the chances of Congress agreeing to landmark tech reforms keep getting slimmer. For the time being, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

As tech foes in Washington engage in an increasingly futile effort to gather momentum for passing legislation before November’s midterms, they can take solace in the work being done by their fellow policymakers across the globe.

In the coming months, countries in Europe and Asia will start enforcing laws that mirror those stuck in the meat grinder of Congress, where political leaders’ attention is much more divided. Those rules will give American lawmakers a valuable opportunity to watch their proposals in action, letting them glean the pros and cons of various provisions before finalizing their bills.

The most wide-ranging tech overhaul will take place in the European Union, where two pieces of legislation likely will gain approval in the coming weeks. The bills are designed to reduce self-preferencing by tech companies (i.e. Amazon pushing its own products over those of competitors on its e-commerce platform); force Apple and Google to allow smartphone users to download apps outside of the companies’ respective app stores; and give regulators more power to oversee algorithms used to recommend content and products, among other aims.

The Financial Times reported Monday that “major companies are now shifting their attention to how they might comply with the legislation, rather than derail it.” 

Congress also will get smaller lessons on reform in the Netherlands and South Korea, where new rules curtail the ability of Apple and Google to collect revenue from app and in-app purchases. South Korea finalized rules earlier this month that ban dominant app stores from forcing developers into using their payment systems, while Dutch regulators ruled last December that Apple must let dating apps use third-party payment processors. 

Then there’s the UK. Members of Parliament are still negotiating final details of sprawling legislation that would give regulators vast powers to police online content deemed illegal or harmful. While its path to passage remains less certain than the EU bills—critics argue the proposals are vague and overbroad—the legislation could gain approval later this year.

These regulations, combined with various ongoing investigations and enforcement actions across the globe, mark the most ambitious attacks on tech’s power in modern history. 

“There is a new sense of common purpose here for the market to stay open,” European Commission executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager, the union’s point person for tech legislation, told The Verge last week. 

“I keep a map where I can sort of put pins in things, like: now the Australians, they are looking into this behavior; now the Indians are into that behavior; now the South Americans, they are looking into this. And there is a pattern showing that competition authorities all over the planet are zooming in on the digital economy in order to make sure that markets are competitive,” she said.

But while policymakers think they’re engaged in a noble pursuit of fairer markets and safer online spaces, the ultimate impact of these reforms will be judged by the execution of each law. How well are new rules enforced? Do they accomplish the intended goals? What are the unintended consequences? Were consumers better off under our current regulatory frameworks?

It’s hardly guaranteed that the benefits of each proposal will outweigh the drawbacks. Maybe smartphones will be less safe if users can download apps outside of an app store, as Apple alleges (doubtful). Maybe government regulators will prove inept at overseeing algorithms or adjudicating what constitutes harmful content (probable). Maybe tech companies will find ways around the new rules (Apple’s already trying to circumvent the Dutch ruling).

While the rest of the world test-runs these laws, American legislators will get the chance to learn from others’ mistakes. Hopefully, that gives the U.S. a better opportunity to get tech reform right the first time.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Logging out. A Russian judge banned Meta’s Facebook and Instagram in the country Monday, determining that the two social media platforms were extremist organizations under a new law targeting companies that spread so-called “fake” news. The Russian government asked the judge to find Meta in violation of the statute, which the Kremlin passed last month following its invasion of Ukraine. Russian leaders called for sanctions against Meta earlier this month when Reuters reported that the company would allow some messages supporting violence against Russian invaders and President Vladimir Putin. The ruling does not impact Meta messaging service WhatsApp “due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information,” the judge ruled.

Getting the message. A Brazilian court quickly reversed its nationwide ban of Telegram on Sunday after the messaging platform’s executives finally responded to an order requiring them to enhance policing of misinformation on their app. The change followed a court order Friday mandating that Brazil’s internet service providers cut off access to the app, citing the company’s months-long refusal to remove false information posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and other Telegram users. Telegram officials, who often resist government and court mandates to remove content or disclose user information, claimed they weren’t aware of the order because it was sent to the wrong email address. 

Back in business. Top Apple supplier Foxconn has “basically resumed normal work order and production operations” in the Chinese city of Shenzhen after a brief COVID-related disruption last week, company officials told Reuters on Monday. Foxconn paused factory work in Shenzhen, a major Chinese tech hub, on March 14 following government shutdown orders aimed at stemming a small COVID breakout in the city. The company, which manufactures a small percentage of iPhones in Shenzhen, restarted some operations last Wednesday. Apple has not commented on the impact of the disruption, though analysts have said it should be minimal.

Making good on this promise. A top Ukrainian minister said SpaceX Starlink technology has been “very effective” at helping maintain internet access for government officials and a small percentage of besieged citizens in the war-torn nation, The Washington Post reported Saturday. Mykhalio Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, said thousands of Starlink on-the-ground antennas are connecting to SpaceX’s low-orbit satellites, which provide internet access without the need for cables. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk pledged in late February to provide Ukraine with Starlink hardware, though his history of unfulfilled promises of tech support in global emergencies prompted skepticism at the time.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Drowning ‘em in paperwork. As Meta seeks to stave off federal regulators pushing for a corporate breakup, the Facebook and Instagram parent wants an incredible amount of information from its rivals. Axios reported Monday that Meta’s lawyers have warned a judge that they could subpoena nearly 300 companies as part of discovery in the Federal Trade Commission’s legal effort to force a sale of Instagram and WhatsApp. The extensive information requests could help Meta prove that it faces extensive competition from other companies, though the breadth of requests has already triggered complaints from subpoena recipients. 

From the article:

Meta's opening salvo in what will be a lengthy discovery process takes aim at the FTC's argument that Snapchat is Facebook's main competitor.

Meta told the judge it may subpoena up to 286 firms it has identified as having information relevant to the case—most of which have named Facebook as a competitor in public statements.

Meta says the list includes companies that compete with it for user time and attention and advertising dollars, including companies that offer services like messaging, news and other media, streaming video, and gaming.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Not ‘Googly’ enough: Google sued by Black ex-employee over ‘racially biased’ culture, by Malathi Nayak and Bloomberg

Ethereum creator slams NFT empire: ‘You have these $3 million monkeys and it becomes a different kind of gambling’, by Taylor Locke

‘My Ape has become my identity in this space’: The emotional reason some NFT collectors are turning down riches, by Taylor Locke

Anonymous has unleashed a successful cyber war to undermine Putin’s Ukraine invasion, by Carmela Chirinos

These Y Combinator cofounders are taking on Robinhood to make crypto investing accessible to Gen Z women, by Emma Hinchliffe

The Congressional Blockchain Caucus is clashing with the SEC. Here’s why, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

BEFORE YOU GO

Hope he enjoyed the minibar, at least. The blockchain-heavy South by Southwest conference wrapped up this weekend, and it’s safe to say VICE tech reporter Edward Ongweso Jr. didn’t leave impressed. In a classic takedown dripping with antipathy, Ongweso, who has written about his blockchain skepticism in the past, argued that SXSW proved those pushing crypto, NFTs, and Web 3.0 lack a clear overarching motivation other than profiting off vague, unjustified hype. The anthropomorphic rabbits scattered around town, Paris Hilton DJ set, and Meta’s cringeworthy 9/11 virtual-reality experience certainly didn’t help, either.

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