Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The European Union Wants to Control the Internet—and You

How a risk-averse bureaucracy across the ocean may decide what you say and do online.

European Union courtStocksnapper / Dreamstime.comWill the future of your online experience be controlled by some random overseas bureaucrats that you would never and could never elect? If the European Union has its way, it may very well be the case. If not, they may fragment the international nature of the internet as we know it.

The E.U. is currently engaged in an all-out, all-fronts policy war against foreign technology companies.

On the legislative level, the trade bloc's recently-instituted General Data Protection Regulation (G.D.P.R.) attempted to curb the perceived excesses of online platforms' data usage by giving European users more controls over their data and recourse over data violations.

This month, the E.U. Parliament approved a revised version of the E.U. Copyright Directive, which will require websites to proactively sniff out and remove intellectual property violations on their platforms (the "upload filter"), and require platforms to pay for licenses to share certain content online (the "link tax"). The measure is expected to be passed by the Parliament next January, after which points member state governments would get to work crafting their specific rules.

There have been many administrative volleys, too. The European Commission, spearheaded by European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, has delivered blow after antitrust blow on U.S. technology companies, slapping record-breaking fines of billions of dollars on Apple, Google (twice), and now possibly Amazon for their purported threats to a competitive environment. Similar cases are still pending.

The negative effects of these policies and decisions on European consumers are fairly straightforward. In the case of the GDPR, the rules have served to benefit market titans like Facebook and Google in Europe while limiting choices for E.U. residents. Many Europeans now find that they cannot access foreign news and services because of GDPR liability risk.

Although many of the antitrust cases are still underway, they could have the effect of limiting foreign commerce in the E.U. market and raising prices. And if passed in its current form, the Copyright Directive is expected to generally benefit the big guys, because they have the pockets to shell out for copyright licenses Meanwhile, free communications and collaboration on these platforms will be quashed since content will have to be pre-checked for compliance before companies will want to allow anything to be posted.

Many non-European denizens of the internet have not yet internalized how much these recent E.U. moves threaten their own online experiences without the option for petition or recourse. Some people joked about the flood of G.D.P.R. compliance emails that temporarily annoyed us when the E.U. rules were rolled out in May. But taken together, this E.U. onslaught against foreign technology companies is really a gambit to either separate the European internet experience from the standards of the rest of the world, or effectively dictate internet policy for much of the world.

E.U. leaders do not mince words about their antipathy to the largely foreign-driven internet ecosystem. Former E.U. parliament president Martin Schulz likened modern technological innovation to a "wrecking ball" that cannot be countenanced by E.U. bureaucrats. His successor Antonio Tajani rejected the option of "accepting that digital transformation," and maintains that his institutions should be "managing it" instead. Vestager often strikes populist tones, speaking of "[taking] democracy back" and appealing to people's feelings of "being cheated" and having a lack of control.

There are many ways to characterize modern E.U. technology policy, but "democratic" is not the word I would choose. Rather, it is technocratic, and it belies a worldview that Brussels knows what is best for everyone from Latvia to Spain and indeed the world.

To remain absolutely compliant with the European trade bloc, technology companies are faced with the choice of either building out separate systems for separate municipalities or just applying the stringent European policies on much of the world. Americans are familiar with this phenomenon, like when rules from high-regulation states like New York or California are merely applied on the nation as a whole even though other states might not desire them.

Usually things are a little different internationally, but the inter-connected nature of the internet makes this situation a bit trickier. The vague wording of E.U. rules does not help matters. Plus, obfuscating technologies like virtual private networks (VPNs) make it harder for technology companies to know where users are actually located. Rather than face the wrath of the E.U., online platforms may just grumble and pass E.U.-compliant policies across-the-board.

This situation is even more pronounced in the case of administrative actions like the antitrust cases against Google's comparison shopping and Android products. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the EU's administrative law culture is far more internationally-interventionist than the US because it empowers regulators to "issue punishments and order remedies before any judicial review." So it is much procedurally easier for Vestager to act as international internet sheriff, and she has put on this ten-gallon hat with gusto.

There is certainly an element of economic self-interest here. The vast majority of major technology firms are not headquartered in E.U. nations. When you strip away the dramatic rhetoric, these policies amount to little more than a covert trade war against technologically-superior competitors. This is not a new insight—former President Obama was chastising E.U. investigations as "commercially driven" revenge policies by countries that "can't compete with us" back in 2015.

But there is a deeper cultural divide as well. Indeed, my colleague Adam Thierer has long argued that it is precisely the European aversion to risk-taking and failure that has set it so far technologically back in the first place. And in contrast to the American posture of largely allowing intervention and tapping agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to monitor and only intervene after investigations show harm to consumers, the E.U. proactively punishes companies on the suspicion of harming a nebulous "competitive environment." What a setup: issue policies that put yourself at a competitive disadvantage, and then punish competitive foreign companies that outstrip you in response!

Now, the E.U. has every right to pass policies that it thinks is it the best interest of its subjects. And it's easy to sympathize with their stated goals: many people share concerns about data security, platform policies, and anti-competitive or illegal activities. But it is absolutely not "democratic" to use those concerns as a pretext to effectively dictate the future of the internet. Nor are those policies likely to have much of an effect beyond, ironically, consolidating the market dominance of current titans.

There are ways that the E.U. could use its position to elicit more transparency and accountability from technology companies, but it sadly appears that Europe is more interested in control than results.

Photo Credit: Stocksnapper / Dreamstime.com

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Now, the E.U. has every right to pass policies that it thinks is it the best interest of its subjects.


    Wrong on all counts.
    Collectives have no rights. The E.U. may have the authority, the power, but they do not have the right.
    Collectives do not think.
    Collectives do not have interests.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Bravo!

  • Quixote||

    That depends on the meaning of the words "interest" and "right." The State of New York has an interest and–despite this "free speech" baloney we keep hearing about–a right (as well as the firm, full and ample authority) to control it subjects and to prevent them from sending out inappropriately deadpan, insufficiently puerile "parodies" that have the potential of harming the reputations of the well-to-do and the well-connected, including respectable faculty members here at NYU. The EU also shares the same interest and right, and to the extent they're willing to work with us to protect the reputations of our faculty members, we're happy to have them on board. See the documentation of our America's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • GoatOnABoat||

    The Soviet Union fell, the European Union popped up in it's place.

  • Cy||

    This is what people mean when they say "we need to be more like European countries."

    The idea that some backwoods hick is free to do and say things they don't like keeps them up at night.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's fascinating to me as well how much we still differ from Europe. As much as we complain here about patronization and ruling elites, the entire atmosphere of embeded elitiism is astonishing to me. Noblesse oblige with a different coat of paint.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Whenever I watch any British TV shows or movies on Netflix, it always amazes me how class-conscious everybody is. It's not just the "yes, m'Lord" crap. It's the company cars (because income taxes are so high that company perks are acceptable substitutes for an income high enough to buy your own car, is my guess), the different speech patters (where dialects are far more a chosen social marker than clothes, cars, and houses), the deference shown to the upper class by everybody ... it's suffocating. I spent some time in Japan and could never get used to all the social niceties, but Britain seems far worse.

    I don't know enough about British laws to know how they reinforce class divisions (such as company cars?) but it's pretty obvious something sure does. I worked with Brits who were all quite aware of class differences. One in particular hated it, and hated that his "friends" disowned him for going to night school to get a better job.

    Why anyone would want to reproduce such an awful system anywhere else is beyond me.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I am proud that we in America seem to make egalitarianism and down to earthness a virtue. We often fail to meet it, of course, but that politiicans when they campaign often still have to roll up their sleeves and pretend to be one of the people warms my heart.

  • Conchfritters||

    Speaking of social niceties, who the hell throws acid in someone's face, and why is this a thing in England? It doesn't make any sense to me. Is this being done in other countries, or just England?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's done in other places.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Cant easily get guns.

    So they throw acid.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    No, the intention of acid attacks tends to be disfigurement. It's usually an honor attack, or other sort of revenge assaults. It's somewhat different from a gun. A closer equivalent here would be revenge porn.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Ah. So the intent is to maim, not kill?

    Modern day Scarlet Letter...on the face.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Does not seem to be a thing here in the USA, as an armed victim would blow the acid attacker's head off.

  • Hank Phillips||

    It's a Mohammedan thing, to show those bitches they can't walk in daylight without ku-klux ninja hoods on. American fanatics prefer coathanger abortions. The net effect has been to vastly ramp up voting for collectivist politicians and parties that hate fanatics who throw acid in women's faces.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    I'll bet you jerk off to videos of Kermit Gosnell performing partial birth abortions, where he ends up stabbing the baby through the head with scissors.

    And don't bother with your anti religious babble with me. I'm agnostic.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "because income taxes are so high that company perks are acceptable substitutes for an income high enough to buy your own car"

    Benefits such as life/health insurance and pensions came into being in the US as a direct consequence of government imposed limits on direct compensation during WWII.

    However, (in the US) beyond certain fairly low limits, the value of employer paid benefits excluding health insurance and retirement benefits, count as taxable income. I don't have a company car, but I pay a small amount in withholdings/payroll taxes on each paycheck for the premiums for my employer paid life insurance.

  • perlchpr||

    I spent some time in Japan and could never get used to all the social niceties, but Britain seems far worse.

    If I had to guess, it's a sort of uncanny valley effect. Japan is very obviously recognizable as a foreign culture to Americans. Brits speak the same language, mostly. So they seem like they should be more like us, and then where they aren't, it's hella jarring.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I find that interesting. I asked someone why some Americans love the British Queen thing. She said because of growing up as a 'princess', so they are real live princesses.

    I replied that USA fought those British Kings because they wanted to enslave us without freedoms.

    I wrecked a fairy tale.

  • Nuwanda||

    "If I had to guess, it's a sort of uncanny valley effect."

    This is a very good observation. And it's jarring when you see it within your own culture. You see people living comfy middle class lives with all the benefits of freedom and pluralism, and look at what they advocate: for its destruction by various means. Yet these folks look like you, speak the same language and experience the same environment. Yet the appear alien in many respects.

    This is the power of ideas, and of the key role of intellectuals in society.

  • Cy||

    Having families "in-charge" alleviates people from being responsible for their own fate. I think a lot of people enjoy that false comfort. We truly live in a country of kings and queens that run around trying to give away their crowns to the first 'Elite' that'll take it from them.

  • Merl3noir||

    The thing is, having lived in Europe for many years, it would be an improvement if we were more like European countries. Most Americans are surprised that the US has a much larger government bureaucracy than most European countries. Governments in Europe tend to outsource a lot of their duties to private companies.

    As well the government workers don't take them selves nearly so serious. Most European Police, and regulators tend to have a bit of a libertarian attitude in so far as if your not really doing any harm, and I don't have to deal with it then let it go. American Police and regulators seem to love to be OCD about enforcing the law no matter how asinine it is, or how much it was not really intended for that situation.

    Although ideally we have the slightly less restrictive laws of the US, combined with European outsourcing much of the laws to companies, and police and regulators that are lax in enforcement, as long as your not really hurting anyone don't wake me up. Sadly we seem to not want to give up on OCD government that is a bloated and over grown, taking on way more than it can handle, while adding European style restrictive laws.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I think that, at this point, we're going to have to construct a whole, parallel internet replacement, to get the original freedom that it gave. If it isn't European bureaucrats, it's American SJW infested IT companies.

  • damikesc||

    Yeah. The concern is not that the EU wants to do this. It's that these companies ALSO want to do so.

    Hell, how many tech companies are livid about doing work for ICE...but have no qualms doing work for countries like China?

  • Shirley Knott||

    The internet is fundamentally flawed in countless ways.
    TCP/IP *may* remain the technology of choice for a while yet, but URLs are increasingly being seen as badly flawed. Running code on the client side (JavaScript) is at best problematic for both providers and clients. "Stateless" has always been a lie. The web is increasingly tilted towards vendors and developers, not end users. Witness links that have to be touched twice — they'll respond to the first touch by highlighting or underlining, so they 'know' they've been touched. But it takes a second touch to actually perform the task. That's all on JavaScript and developer convenience (React, Vue, Angular, et. al.).
    It's time for the internet to go the way of email — great while it lasted, but supplanted by 'better' technology. I hope to live long enough to see it happen.

  • perlchpr||

    I think there may be places in this comment where you said "internet" and meant "internet", and where you said "internet" and meant "world wide web". It's a bit confusing.

  • Michael Ahlers||

    OMG WTF BBQ, I've rarely encountered so much nonsensical tripe regarding technology in a single comment. Great job!

  • Trollificus||

    r u nu?

  • barfman2018||

    URLs are increasingly being seen as badly flawed

    WTF are you talking about?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I believe mesh networks and the dark web will do this. Mesh networks connect through each other instead of through central ISPs. It requires much more bandwidth and traffic slows down from the extra hops to get anywhere, but technology is improving all the time. Plus, you only need the mesh to find dark web sites and establish VPNs, which prevents snoopers from knowing who you connect to or what you say.

    Government and mygoobook will find themselves increasingly locked out of the real web. Mainstream shopping and searches will still be around but knowing what dishwashing soap you buy is not what they want. Local news will still be around, and that isn't what they want either. Downloading 3D printer plans or getting help with your home lab procedures and supplies is what they want and what they won't get.

    Things are going to get better.

  • barfman2018||

    Mesh networks connect through each other instead of through central ISPs.

    UUCP shall rise again!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Exactly Brett. Americans companies could say FU to the EU if companies like Google were not infested with SJWs.

    More people would support Trump negotiation of trade policies, if the media would honestly discuss that revoking repressive internet rules should be part of the trade negotiation.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    What you mean "we", white man?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    What government isn't popping a huge woodrow over the idea of controlling information?

  • Cy||

    They just need to let someone do something really bad. Then force some bullshit legislation through overnight that they already have written up because... TERRORISTS! I think we should call it "The Freedom and Security Act!"

  • Conchfritters||

    GDRP rules serve to benefit companies like Google, and then they fine the shit out of them? Maybe it's too early in the morning, but that just doesn't make any fucking sense. I can see why countries are questioning why they joined that fucking cabal.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I believe the antitrust stuff is distinct from GDRP compliance. I think the point is more the general point that regulation serves to benefit the vested interest with the money to comply.

  • Oli||

    How would GDPR benefit Google? It's eating up resources in any literally every company connected to the internet.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Progressives everywhere demonize inequality, and their solution is to rob the rich until they are as poor as everybody else, instead of loosening the bureaucracies which have stifled social mobility and enabled government monopolies. Of course, that stolen money goes to the bureaucrats and malcontents who vote for them, not to make self-help any easier for the downtrodden.

    So it goes with technological progress. Because EU rules have suffocated innovation, their solution to the resultant inequality between the EU and US is to rob and stifle the US innovators, not to increase EU innovation.

  • Rockabilly||

    fuck off communists.

  • Conchfritters||

    The vast majority of major technology firms are not headquartered in E.U. nations.

    Look, we'll come to you if we want some wooden clogs, otherwise shut the fuck up.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Maybe you will, but I'll go to Solvang for my needs, thank you very much.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Socialists know that Democracy does not help their cause because voters can turn against Socialism and roll it back .

    A group of bureaucrats controlling pseudo-democratic countries is the way to go. The voters vote but the bureaucracy controls the government through rules.

    Then the pesky USA and its internet comes along and threatens to derail that plan. *Idea* use bureaucrats to control those internet companies since they want to provide internet services in the EU. Use the bureaucracy to force rules on the internet companies and that will change the company services even in the USA.

    It effectively negates the American protections of the 1st Amendment.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Remember when the the USA gave up control of ICANN?

    Notice EU bureaucrats chomping at the bit around this time to control the internet and force repressive policies that even Americans internet companies would come to accept.

  • perlchpr||

    We could take it back, if we had to.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    We probably should.

    The USA is really the only nation to be trusted with keeping the internet free from government oppression. That is even with Lefty oppressors in the USA trying their best to make the internet less free.

  • perlchpr||

    We need to just disconnect the .eu Parliament from the internet and not give it back to them until they stop being fucking morons.

  • Ron||

    Kill the golden goose to silence those you oppose

  • Rob Misek||

    What kind of democracy censors free speech, knowledge, and installs Orwellian laws to promote propaganda?

    We don't know what we are restricted from knowing.

    When a controversial issue arises and evidence of logic and science, truth, is censored and only biased propaganda is LEGAL, how will people form their opinions?

    Hate speech is undefined. Truth is illegal.

  • Hank Phillips||

    So Andrea has finally gotten around to reading the 1933 Enabling Act speech to the Reichstag? Germans are discovering unexploded bombs at the rate of one a week and STILL haven't learnt that Socialism and National Socialism are the same damned thing: initiation of deadly force to further the goals of altruist collectivism. There are even a few Libertarian Parties in places like the Netherlands, but Newspeak dominates Eurothinking to the point where defining such things as government, freedom or a right decodes as incomprehensible thoughtcrime.

  • Hank Phillips||

    We need an article on how to edit Euronazi strangers-with-cookies blog warnings to replace bootlicking legalese with pithier samples of American wit.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Socialists are the control freaks and bullies who need to control all the lives of us little people.
    That's why they demand to control all information.
    Otherwise they would feel inadequate and useless.
    Then they will feel bad about themselves and not enjoy life to the fullest.
    Does anyone want that on their conscience?

  • Tony_S||

    Just one more reason why I'm happy to pay for ExpressVPN. The internet's going to be a completely different place in 5 five.

  • Merl3noir||

    I just don't see how Europe will be able to effect much. The large companies like FB, google, and Amazon, will comply only to the point that it does not start to cost them their customers in the rest of the world. Europe is too small of a market for those big companies to risk loosing revenue everywhere else. Europe may be able to enforce their laws with the large Multinationals, but those companies can also make it painful for European citizens. However what are they honestly going to be able to do against smaller sites that have no European presence. They can send out notices but that's about it. Those companies can simply ignore European law, much like the world does with Chinese laws regulating the internet. Or the business may simply price into their business model paying fines. Much like Ferrari, Lamborghini and other performance car manufactures price into their products the fines for failing to comply with CAFE standards.

  • Mark22||

    Will the future of your online experience be controlled by some random overseas bureaucrats that you would never and could never elect? If the European Union has its way, it may very well be the case. If not, they may fragment the international nature of the internet as we know it.

    I hope Europe builds a digital wall around itself and doesn't let its citizens interact with US web sites; political dialog in the US would improve greatly without European trolls.

  • Joe_C||

    You mean the Brits that can't stop giving their opinions on US politics as if they still have some sort of say almost 250 years after they lost that right?

  • BrianB||

    Could you just report news items without writing in such an immature, amateurish slanted way:

    "The EU is currently engaged in an all-out, all-fronts policy war against foreign technology companies."

    Sure, it's a war. Like WWII, right? Calm down.

    "Will the future of your online experience be controlled by some random overseas bureaucrats that you would never and could never elect?"

    Please. We get what you're reporting on. This kind of writing looks like a high school newspaper, where the faculty advisor hasn't gotten around to explaining how to write a news story.

  • Joe_C||

    I've been saying this ever since GDPR was announced. It's not right that a tiny government can force rules that change the entire internet. Facebook, Google, et al should have banned EU IPs for about a week with a banner that says something like, "If GDPR passes, we won't be able to operate in your country. Call your representatives at XXX and tell them you want an open and free internet."

    Now they have another chance to do the same thing. Instead, they're going to cave and do whatever is necessary to comply with this copyright issue that's even worse, and we'll all have the closed down internet that statists want. When what they should do is block the EU until they reverse their BS.

    At least tech is improving and mesh networks might finally make for a free and open Internet 2.0.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online