The 2010s will probably go down in history as a revolutionary decade for everyday technology innovations – from tablets to e-readers, social media to streaming – but also for the rise of important concerns over data privacy, copyright, hate speech, and unfair competition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic of the 2020s has made most US tech giants more dominant and powerful than ever. Their position as so-called digital “gatekeepers”, running online marketplaces that other companies must use and compete against to trade, has given regulatory initiatives new momentum.
In the European Union, two major proposals are expected to be put forward by the end of this year to curb the power of big tech: the digital services act, which will aim to clarify responsibilities for illegal content and set out rules on transparent advertising and disinformation; and the digital markets act, which will use case-by-case enforcement to investigate digital gatekeepers and intervene in the market “by imposing remedies”.
This legal framework – deliberately asymmetric and aimed at the larger groups – has been welcomed by EU member states and small players, who have called for more rapid action to bring antitrust charges against gatekeepers in a matter of months, rather than years. If passed, the legislation package could potentially level the playing field, but it also risks constraining the capacity of big corporations to adapt, thus hurting small businesses that benefit from that innovation.
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority is leading a similar regulatory push, as it seeks to set up a digital markets unit with sweeping powers to “prevent [large technology companies] from exploiting their powerful positions” and to foster “vibrant competition and innovation”. The new legislation is expected to be proposed in the coming year, following a consultation with internet companies, publishers, and other interested parties.
Across the pond, US president-elect Joe Biden has often criticised the industry and could use the Department of Justice to pursue more antitrust litigation. However, the presence of former Apple, Facebook, and Google officials on his tech advisory board, along with a number of Amazon executives also listed on his agency review teams, suggests federal oversight of big tech might be more light touch than in Europe.
Whatever the market impacts and political side-effects of new regulations in the UK, Europe and beyond might be, there’s no denying that the 2020s will see big tech companies under further scrutiny. How they choose to operate against this backdrop will ultimately set the direction of travel for everyday innovations to come.