When it comes to governing the digital economy, the European Union is showing strong signs of policy incoherence. On the one hand, Brussels introduces legislation to regulate the global digital economy and Big Tech companies. On the other, it promotes trade deals, which will put handcuffs on governments' ability to hold Big Tech accountable.
Artificial intelligence is spreading like wildfire. Undoubtedly, we recognise its benefits. However, the potential harms of AI applications still need to be fully known, and more safeguards developed to deal with them. At the moment, Big Tech companies are way ahead of the laws supposed to regulate them, and are operating in one of the most unfettered sectors of the global economy. Governments have started identifying possible risks from this lack of regulation and are developing solutions. The EU, for example, is advancing legislation such as the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, the Data Act, the Data Governance Act and the Artificial Intelligence Act, which aim to rein in the power of US and Chinese tech companies that dominate the sector.
But the tech giants are relentlessly doing everything to avoid more rules and seeking to use any loopholes available. As such, it is no surprise that for years, Big Tech corporations have been aggressively lobbying to water down regulations in the public interest through trade agreements, which are often binding and permanent. They are pushing their agenda through backdoor arrangements and bilateral or regional trade deals. But the surprise comes when the European Commission also plays the tech giants' dirty game.
The Commission's digital trade proposals include dangerous clauses harmful to European society, Europe's Green Agenda and democracy in general. The digital economy generates enormous amounts of data. In the new digital age, data is the new gold. Clauses from trade agreements dictating the free flow of data across borders, bans on data localisation, and non-disclosure of algorithms give multinationals a complete monopoly on data, while stripping governments and other actors in society from any potential oversight over algorithms and data use. The EU should put control of Big Tech in public hands.
Similarly, under the Commission’s trade proposals, data won’t stay within EU borders. This raises concerns about privacy and at the same time, with data in third countries, member states won’t be able to use them. For example, the data collected by Uber could be used to develop better public transport policies if governments have access to it.
These proposed digital trade rules couldundermine EU citizens' data privacy rights and could worsen AI-based discrimination and consumer protection standards. On top of all this, they could even exacerbate tax dodging. As is well documented, Big Tech pays very little in tax but now there’s a real risk that our ability to tax the most profitable corporations in the history of the world would be constrained by the new digital trade rules proposed by the Commission.
The power imbalance between Big Tech and workers would be tilted even further against working people if Big Tech keeps getting its way in rewriting the rules that govern digitalization. The EU must ensure through consistent regulation that Big Tech works for the many, not only the few.