In Brussels on Saturday, the European Union struck a deal on a landmark law, the Digital Services Act (DSA), to force the world’s biggest tech companies to more aggressively police against harmful content and to disclose more information about how their products work to regulators and external researchers.
With this step, which builds on the E.U.’s sweeping competition rules and watershed data privacy regulations, the bloc takes a massive lead in crafting rules of the road for the Internet on U.S. lawmakers, who have yet to notch a major win on any of those fronts.
Efforts to modernize U.S. antitrust law are surging and a new push to boost protections for children online is gaining speed. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that U.S. lawmakers won’t be able to match the sheer scope of the E.U’s new rules anytime soon. Here’s why:
The E.U. is way out ahead in regulating social media’s harms
Europe has its biggest lead when it comes to regulating harmful content on tech platforms.
The bloc’s new law is far more sweeping in scope than any proposal yet to be unveiled on Capitol Hill. It would not only require that companies be more transparent about how their platforms amplify content and that they take steps to mitigate harms, but it would also set new limits around targeted digital advertising.
In Washington, where the debate about online speech is often deeply polarized, one of the few areas where lawmakers have found consensus is on expanding protections for children online.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) have introduced a bill that mirrors many of the DSA’s obligations, like creating algorithmic transparency requirements and forcing companies to vet their products. But these rules would only apply to children, leaving adult users unprotected in the United States.
One major U.S. proposal that more closely aligns with Europe’s broader transparency requirements, the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, hasn’t even been formally introduced yet — it’s a draft bill.
Lawmakers have introduced a slew of bills to weaken a legal shield that protects digital services from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content. But they would largely open companies up to new legal challenges, rather than creating fresh regulations for how they police content.
A surging, but narrower, antitrust push in the U.S.
The bipartisan campaign to revamp the U.S. antitrust rules is the domestic push proving most threatening to tech giants. It’s also made the most progress: Chief among those efforts are a pair of proposals that together would block the tech giants from favoring their own goods and rein in the practices of app store titans like Apple and Google.
Both those bills have already cleared a key hurdle by advancing out of committee in the Senate, and its proponents are bullish on the prospects of getting at least one of them signed into law.
But that’s only a portion of the proposals congressional leaders initially sought to pass. House lawmakers last year advanced other bills that would block the tech giants from scooping up budding rivals, make it easier for users to transfer their data to other services and give regulators more power to sue to break companies up. But those proposals have either yet to be introduced or been marked up in the Senate, making their passage unlikely.
Passing just one of their more aggressive antitrust bills would mark the most significant restrictions Congress has ever imposed directly on the tech giants’ practices.
But that alone wouldn’t match the scope of the E.U.’s new competition law, the Digital Markets Act, which would not only ban self-preferencing by the tech giants but also force them to allow users to install third-party apps, restrict how much they can share consumer data between their businesses and require them to make their services interoperable with competitors’ products.
And U.S. lawmakers may be running up against the clock as they barrel toward the midterms.
A glaring drought on data privacy
U.S. lawmakers have put perhaps the most effort into trying to pass a federal privacy law, with little to show for it. In theory, it should be the lightest lift, given the near universal agreement on the need for it, both in Washington and Silicon Valley.
Lawmakers have tried to pass a federal privacy law for years, and those efforts gained a second wind after Europe implemented its landmark privacy rules in 2018. But even so, the push has been stuck in the mud with little major progress.
If talks gain steam again, lawmakers would presumably have years of discussion to build on. But confidence in Congress’s ability to get the job done on privacy may be at an all-time low, particularly with the midterm elections looming and control of Congress potentially up in the air.
Our top tabs
Democrats set to secure long-awaited FTC majority this week
Vice President Harris will be on hand to break an expected tie in the Senate confirmation of law professor Alvaro Bedoya for a seat on the Federal Trade Commission, Reuters’s Richard Cowan reports. Bedoya’s confirmation would give Democrats on the FTC a long-awaited majority, clearing the way for them to implement an ambitious tech agenda.
President Biden nominated Bedoya for the FTC seat in September. Bedoya founded Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, and has spearheaded research into how government use of facial recognition and other surveillance technology affect marginalized groups.
Amazon workers at second Staten Island facility begin unionization vote
Hundreds of workers at Amazon’s LDJ5 facility begin voting on whether to organize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) on Monday, CNN’s Sara Ashley O’Brien reports. Pro-unionization activists have high-profile backers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who spoke with workers at an Amazon facility on Staten Island that voted to organize with the ALU on April 1.
“We have another election tomorrow, and we’re going to support them in that. And the day after that, and the day after that, all the way,” Ocasio-Cortez said. But what we need Amazon to do first and foremost is to recognize the union that won their election.”
Tech companies like Amazon are breaking out old-school union busting tactics. At the Staten Island facility set to vote Monday, “Amazon has hired consultants to union bust, mandated classes to discourage organizing and threatened to arrest union leaders for trespassing,” my colleagues write.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the company invests billions in benefits, pay and resources for employees. “We also know that there are outside organizations working hard and spending heavily to spread inaccurate information about us to our teams,” she said.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Twitter set to accept Elon Musk’s takeover offer
The company is poised to accept what the Tesla chief called his “best and final” offer for the social media company as early as Monday, Reuters’ Greg Roumeliotis reports. Meanwhile, Musk is trying to pitch his plan to other shareholders in the social media company.
The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported Sunday that the board was warming to Musk’s offer. “The two sides worked through the night to hash out a deal that would be valued at $54.20 a share … There are no guarantees they will reach one,” Lombardo wrote.
The report adds, “Twitter is slated to report first-quarter earnings Thursday and had been expected to weigh in on the bid then, if not sooner.
Rant and rave
Game and app developers weighed in after Apple reportedly warned app developers that they will remove apps from the App Store that haven’t been “updated in a significant amount of time.” WithSecure’s Mikko Hypponen:
Amelia Acker, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin:
So much digital cultural memory has been removed because app stores 🛒
— Dr. Amelia Acker (@amelia_acker) April 24, 2022
Software developer Simon Willison:
Inside the industry
- The R Street Institute holds an event on aspects of a U.S. privacy law today at noon.
- Google parent Alphabet and Microsoft hold earnings calls Tuesday at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
- Clearview AI founder and chief executive Hoan Ton-That speaks at a Washington Post Live event Wednesday at 11 a.m.
- Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) speaks at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on U.S.-China competition in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
- Facebook parent Meta holds an earnings call Wednesday at 5 p.m.
- The Committee on House Administration holds a hearing on the effects of disinformation on communities of color Thursday at 10 a.m.
- Twitter, Apple and Amazon hold earnings calls Thursday at 8 a.m., 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Before you log off