POLITICO Digital Bridge: Trade and Tech Council debrief — Antitrust consensus — Anti-vaccine content

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By MARK SCOTT

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WELCOME TO ANOTHER Digital Bridge. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief tech correspondent, and will be discussing transatlantic tech issues today at 4pm CEST / 10am EST with European Commission vice president Věra Jourová and former U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, among others. Watch along here (and send me your questions).

Grab a pew. Here’s what’s cooking:

— What to make of the first EU-U.S. Trade and Tech Council (TCC) meeting?

— Whisper it quietly: there’s consensus among Western antitrust regulators on Big Tech.

Youtube took action against anti-vaccine content. A lot is still out there.

TTC: THE DAY AFTER THE NIGHT BEFORE

AND SO THAT’S THAT. With the final statement published — and much glad-handing completed — senior EU and United States officials set out their stall for greater cooperation on trade and technology. All the greatest hits were there. So-called export controls and investment screening, mostly to keep China at bay. Possible limits on the use of artificial intelligence. Promises to work more closely on global trade challenges (also read: China.)

But for those expecting fireworks, this meeting was not that. EU and U.S. officials told me the goal of this first summit was merely to lay down a marker so that the TTC’s 10 working groups (details here) could get down to work on more concrete goals for the next meeting, mostly likely in France in early 2022. “We wanted to put forward a plan for what’s to come,” said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Now the working groups will get down to work. This is just start of something bigger.”

It’s certainly true that the mere fact there was a transatlantic meeting about everything from possible platform regulation to data governance to protecting critical supply chains should be viewed as some sort of win. Both sides still view each other via the prism of previous trade and digital clashes. So getting the EU’s Margrethe Vestager and Valdis Dombrovskis in the same room as the U.S.’s Antony Blinken, Gina Raimondo and Katherine Tai is a step in the right direction.

But Wednesday’s meeting left many questions unanswered. Critically, what’s the TTC actually for? For Washington, the focus is squarely on pushing back on China. The White House was particularly keen on linking the transatlantic meeting’s outcome with a separate, recent statement from the so-called Quad countries of the U.S, Australia, India and Japan. For the EU, that’s still a step too far, although the TTC’s future work has a significant anti-China feel to it.

“There are areas that are in there, including some that have been more fleshed out than others, that are clearly on the agenda only because of shared concerns about China,” Emily Kilcrease, director of the energy, economics and security program at the Center for a New American Security, and former official at the United States Trade Representative, told me. “Investment screening would not have such a robust presence on the agenda if there wasn’t a shared concern about Chinese acquisitions.”

Second is what to do about different approach to digital regulation. The TTC’s final communique made it clear this transatlantic approach would not affect whatever tech-related rules either Brussels or Washington pass. But in an event just before Wednesday’s meeting in Pittsburgh, Raimondo reiterated longstanding U.S. concerns about the EU’s antitrust proposals, called the Digital Markets Act, and how they may unfairly target U.S. tech companies.

On top of that are the ongoing geopolitical questions that still may scupper the TTC. France’s (failed) effort to hijack this week’s meeting — and how that strategy has gone down, both in Washington and in parts of the EU — should not be overlooked. Officials say trust is still high. But the fact Paris was able to throw its weight around — and got backing to do so from Germany — will not be forgotten overnight. That still represents a black mark on these attempts to rekindle the transatlantic relationship.

ANTITRUST REGULATORS’ COLLECTIVE PLAYBOOK

IT’S WASN’T TOO long ago that the competition regulatory world was split into two camps (I’m being a little simplistic, but stay with me). On one side stood Europe, which has spent more than the last decade trying to hobble the likes of GoogleAppleFacebook and Amazon. On the other was the U.S. whose regulators had mostly steered clear of such fights (even when officials had wanted to dive in), and whose lawmakers routinely attacked Brussels for its perceived anti-American bias.

That paradigm has now come to an end. From Washington to Brussels to London to Paris, regulators are now in agreement the current status quo — of a few tech giants holding sway over vast patches of the digital world — is not sustainable and something must be done to change it. That united front will be on show later today when many of these regulators (but not the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Lina Khan) will gather at Fordham University to talk shop in person for the first time since the pandemic began.

“I have a strong conviction that enforcers must not be weak,” Isabelle de Silva, France’s competition chief, told me earlier this year. “When there is a new rule, this creates a disturbance in the force for the platforms, and they don’t always like it. But this is the time that we need to keep a clear view of the law and apply it as we see it.”

That message is becoming loud and clear wherever you look. This week, Australia’s competition authority published a report claiming Google had abused its dominance in online advertising to give preference to its own services. The company denies those allegations. In Germany, the country’s federal cartel office is using newly-won powers to investigate similar dominance by Silicon Valley’s biggest names. U.S. authorities, too, have their own cases — as do the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands.

That regulators consider the current situation as problematic is clear. But what many are still missing is a rejuvenated playbook to tackle 21st digital competition issues. Currently, many are shoehorning investigations into outdated antitrust rules, often pushing existing legislation to breaking point to make cases stick. “New regulatory solutions are needed to address Google’s dominance and to restore competition to the ad tech sector for the benefit of businesses and consumers,” said Australia’s Rod Sims.

So far, Europe and the U.S. are making progress in giving enforcers greater powers. Brussels and national EU capitals have favored a complicated task of prioritizing a small number of dominant companies, and then limiting how those firms can expand going forward. Washington, too, wants to restrict tech giants’ ability to scoop up rivals, as well as limit the types of businesses they can operate. Europe hopes to pass its laws in 2022. The timeline for the U.S. is more open-ended.

Until new legislation is passed, regulators still have a lot on their plate. Cases against Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are still making their way through country’s enforcement process — and encompass everything from potential abuse of online app stores to unfair dominance of people’s personal information to skewing the market in favor of their own services over those of rivals. The companies deny wrongdoing. The fact these cases even exist show we’re a long way off where things stood a couple of years ago.

BY THE NUMBERS

SOCIAL MEDIA AND ANTI-VACCINE CONTENT

IN WHAT MUST BE the most obvious policy change of all time, Google’s YouTube announced it would remove any content that spread mistruths that vaccines don’t work or led to harmful consequences. The video-streaming service already had moved to combat COVID-19 misinformation, and this step expands that approach to target all anti-vax material, including that spread by big name influencers like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Facebook has made similar moves, albeit critics claim all social media platforms are still rife with anti-vaccine (and COVID-19) material.

After Google’s announcement yesterday, I did a quick search — across English, Spanish, French, Italian and German — on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to see what was still out there. It’s not a pretty sight. While many of the English-language YouTube channels that had promoted anti-vaccine views either had disappeared or were missing content, posts in the other languages were still extremely easy to find — and were being shared, collectively, tens of thousands of times. Granted, this was a quick data grab over a 24 hour period. But if I’m still able to find anti-vaccine content, particularly in non-English languages, very easily, you have to think average social media users will be able, too.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT DATA ACCESS

I’VE BEEN A LONG-TIME advocate for more transparency on what people see on social media. That includes social media companies opening up their treasure trove of data (with the right privacy constraints) so that media organizations, researchers and policymakers can delve into what’s really going on within these platforms. Some examples of what that can lead to here, here and here. To get a sense of where the debate on this stands — a U.S. Congressional subcommittee held a hearing on the topic this week — I jumped on a zoom with Marshall Erwin, Mozilla’s chief security officer, who has similarly called for greater data access from social media companies.

On what the problem is: “Facebook as a history of not providing enough data, taking aggressive action against researchers, of providing tools that don’t work, and even now, burying its own research internally. What we need is an actual aggressive agenda from the (Biden) administration and Congress to address this.”

On lessons from Europe: “We know that bulk ad disclosure is part of the (EU’s) Digital Services Act proposal, and so we’ve made a ton of progress there. That’s really going to be lead and define the policy agenda on this.”

On why more data on ads is important: “We know, going back to the 2016 (U.S.) elections and how the Russians used the platform, that the ads are critical in terms of a basic marketing funnel for disinformation. What happens is the ads drive people into groups, and then the groups become the driver after that.”

On wider impact: “It isn’t just a problem of political ads. It’s much broader. It’s discrimination against certain groups of society. It’s deceptive advertising, like trying to sell fake ads to older people who are being sort of subject to fraudulent advertising. These areas are all within scope.”

WONK OF THE WEEK

JUST BECAUSE NO ONE from the FTC is speaking at Thursday’s antitrust conference (see above), doesn’t mean I’m letting them off. So this week, we’re focusing on Shaoul Sussman, a recently-appointed adviser to Lina Khan. Although he only took up the job in July (after working as a competition lawyer in New York), Sussman already has got himself in hot water over comments he made to an Israeli newspaper before joining the federal government.

“I’m not sure if they will be broken up in the next few years, but from the perspective of legislation, their judgment has been written,” he told The Marker, a Hebrew-language newspaper, in reference to Facebook and Google. “If a year ago you would have asked me, I would have said there’s no chance at all. But if they do not manage to dismantle them, the senators and members of Congress will see it as a personal failure.”

Sussman has already had to recuse himself from the FTC’s ongoing Amazon investigation because he previously represented a third-party seller on the e-commerce site in a U.S. Congressional antitrust study into dominance of online markets.

THEY SAID WHAT, NOW? 

Today marks a fresh chapter in our transatlantic relations. The EU & U.S. committed to work at pace to jointly shape standards and rules that will support our businesses, workers and consumers in the 21st century,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s vice president in charge of trade, wrote on Twitter following Wednesday’s TTC meeting.

WHAT I’M READING

— U.S. and EU policymakers should move away from grandstanding and focus their transatlantic efforts on more mundane, and more easily-achievable, goals, argues Hosuk Lee-Makiyama for the Center for European Policy Analysis.

— A major stumbling block in the ongoing transatlantic talks on data flows is the problem of giving EU citizens’ greater access to challenge U.S. government data collection while also protecting national security, claim Alex Joel and Francesca Oliveira in the European Law Blog.

— The TTC’s first meeting is just over, and corporate lobbying interests have already stepped up a gear to target the body’s working groups, according to analysis from Corporate Europe Observatory.

— Still struggling to understand what the TTC is and what’s it for? Chad Brown and Cecilia Malmström give you their take via the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

— The U.S. Congressional Research Service outlines the fault lines in the ongoing EU-U.S. data flows talks, including where both sides still disagree. (Disclaimer: POLITICO’s coverage is mentioned throughout.)

— The FTC’s Lina Khan lays out her vision for the agency that focuses on a more joined-up view on how antitrust and consumer protection rules should work in tandem. Take a look here.

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