As Europe Approves New Tech Laws, US Falls Even Further Behind
In the past few years alone, Europe has seen a landmark online privacy law come into effect, approved sweeping regulations to curb the dominance of tech giants and Friday was close to reaching agreement on a new legislation to protect its citizens from harmful online content.
For those who count, it’s Europe: three. United States: zero.
The United States is perhaps the birthplace of the iPhone and the most used search engine and social network, and it could also bring the world into the so-called metaverse. But global leadership in technology regulation is exercised more than 3,000 miles from Washington, by European leaders representing 27 nations speaking 24 languages, who have nevertheless been able to agree on basic online protections for their 450 or so million citizens.
In the United States, Congress has failed to pass a single comprehensive regulation to protect internet consumers and limit the power of its tech giants.
It’s not for lack of trying. Over 25 years, dozens of federal privacy bills have been proposed and then ultimately dropped without bipartisan support. With every major bank or retailer hack, lawmakers have introduced data breach and security bills, all of which have faded on the vine. A wave of speech bills have foundered in the quicksand of partisan disagreements over free speech. And antitrust bills aimed at reducing the power of Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, have remained in limbo amid fierce lobbying opposition.
Only two narrow federal technology laws have been enacted — one for children’s privacy and the other to rid sites of sex trafficking content — in the past 25 years.
“Inertia is too nice a word to describe what happened in the United States; there has been a lack of will, courage and understanding of the problem and the technologies,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group. “And consumers are left with no protection here and a lot of confusion.”
The prospects for any legislation to pass imminently are dim, although regulations are almost inevitable at some point due to the way technology touches so many aspects of life. Of all the proposals currently before Congress, an antitrust bill that would ban Apple, Alphabet and Amazon from boosting their own products in their marketplaces and app stores over those of their rivals has the best shot.
A co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said Democratic leaders had promised it would go to a vote this summer. But even this bill, with bipartisan support, faces a meteoric rise amid so many other priorities in Congress and a fierce tech lobbying effort to defeat it.
If history is any guide, the road to US tech regulation will be a long one. It took decades of public anger to regulate the railroads through the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. It took nearly 50 years from the first medical reports of the dangers of cigarettes to the regulation of tobacco.
There is no single reason for progress sludge in Congress. The proposals were caught in the age-old partisan divide over how to protect consumers while encouraging business growth. Then there are the hundreds of tech lobbyists blocking legislation that could stifle their profits. Lawmakers have also sometimes failed to grasp the technologies they are trying to regulate, diverting their public weaknesses on internet technology memes.
Tech companies have taken advantage of this knowledge blind spot, said Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
“It’s what I call the ‘grand crook,’ where tech companies talk about doing magic and if Washington hits their companies with regulations, they’ll be responsible for breaking that magic,” he said. -he declares.
In the vacuum of federal regulations, states have instead created a patchwork of technical rules. California, Virginia, Utah and Colorado have their own privacy laws. Florida and Texas have passed social media laws aimed at punishing internet platforms for censoring conservative views.
Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Meta and Microsoft said they support federal regulations. But when pressed, some of them fought for the more permissive versions of the laws that were considered. Meta, for example, lobbied for weaker federal privacy legislation that would trump tougher state laws.
Tech’s lobbying power is now on full display in Washington with the threat of the antitrust bill from Ms. Klobuchar and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. The proposal passed its first hurdle of votes in January, much to the surprise of the tech industry.
In response, many tech companies mobilized an extensive lobbying and marketing campaign to defeat the bill. Through a trade group, Amazon claimed in TV ads and in newspapers that the bill would effectively end its Prime membership program. Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a Blog post that the legislation would “break” popular products and prevent the company from displaying Google Maps in search results.
Ms Klobuchar said the companies’ claims were hyperbole. She warned that in fighting the proposal, tech companies could choose the worse of two tough options.
“They let Europe set the agenda for internet regulation,” Ms Klobuchar said. “At least we listened to everyone’s concerns and changed our bill.”
The inaction might seem surprising given that Republicans and Democrats are seemingly in tune with how tech companies have transformed themselves into global powers.
“Consumers need to know that their data is protected, and businesses need to know that they can continue to innovate while complying with a strong and achievable national privacy standard,” said Senator Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican. “The United States cannot afford to cede leadership on this issue.”
Lawmakers have also forced numerous chief technology officers — including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg — to testify before Congress several times in recent years. In some of those televised hearings, lawmakers from both sides told executives that their companies — with a combined market value of $6.4 trillion — are not above government or public accountability.
“Some of these companies are countries, not companies,” Sen. John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said in an antitrust hearing in January, adding that they are “killing fields for the truth.”
But so far, the discussions have not translated into new laws. The path to privacy regulations provides the clearest case study on this record of inaction.
Since 1995, Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, has introduced a dozen privacy bills for ISPs, drones, and third-party data brokers. In 2018, the year the European General Data Protection Regulation came into effect, he proposed a bill requiring a consumer’s permission to share or sell data.
Mr. Markey also made two attempts to update and strengthen youth privacy legislation following his 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
With all their efforts, industry lobby groups denounced the bills as harmful to innovation. Many Republican lawmakers have opposed the proposals, saying they don’t reconcile business needs.
“Big Tech sees data as dollar signs, so for decades they’ve funded industry lobbyists to help them escape accountability,” Markey said. “We have reached a breaking point.”