Between them, the European Union and the US could set the digital rules for the rest of the world! That’s the bold, some might say delusionally opportunistic, pitch set out by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for the attention of Joe Biden.
It’s a ‘let’s be friends’ conciliatory call that stands in marked contrast to the at times nakedly anti-US views expressed by many in Brussels over the years and in particular to the open hostility shown by many senior European policy-makers towards the Trump regime. (For her part, von der Leyen talks about “the relief that many of us are feeling about the change of administration in Washington”.)
The timing of such an invitation for rapprochement is no coincidence of course, with von der Leyen laying our her stall as Trump prepared for exile on the golf course at Mar-a-lago and incoming President Biden had yet to arrive for his own inauguration ceremony. So what is it that she thinks Europe has to offer to the new administration to bring about this envisioned transatlantic digital axis of power? As she sells it:
Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide, from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values - human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.
Now, I’m immediately reminded at this point of a B-movie sci-fi villainess trying to seduce the hero with a promise that, ‘Together we could rule the universe!’, but von der Leyen is clearly quite serious. She goes on to cite Europe’s launch of its Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Act in December as evidence of the Union’s clout that needs to be paid attention to if a digital nirvana is to be built in Brussels image:
It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington. The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level, as has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation. I can imagine, for example, a joint Trade and Technology Council, as a first step.
The big problem for von der Leyen is that letting European legislators have a say in shaping the future of the global tech sector isn’t going to be (a) popular with most US voters and (b) high on Biden’s already far-too-extensive list of the things to do, even when a European official tells him that this is a great offer that’s she’s putting on the table here.
Never knowingly undersold
But then never let it be said that a Eurocrat would ever knowingly undersell his or her sense of self-belief in their own international relevance. This has been seen time and again when it comes to tensions between Europe’s legislators and the US tech industry - and not just with Trump in the Oval Office.
Back in 2013, with Barack Obama at the height of his ‘hope and change’ evangelism, a movement with which ‘too cool for school’ European political leaders were desperate to align themselves, Commissioners in Brussels were busy laying down the law to Washington, with the likes of former Commission VP Vivien Reding sternly telling the Americans to sit up and pay attention to her demands and warning them to buck up their ideas:
There is now a window of opportunity to rebuild trust [with Europe] which we expect our American partners to use.
Funnily enough, Obama didn’t feel that was a particularly good use of his time.
Or take the long-running farce that was Privacy Shield, the hastily grubbed together PR exercise that was shoved out after Europe pulled the Safe Harbor transatlantic data transfer framework down around everyone’s ears. It was the proverbial ‘lipstick on a pig’ from start to finish and the US authorities treated it with the cursory level of attention it deserved, failing to meet their obligations as laid down in the press release - sorry, in the agreement. This led to yet more foot-stamping and futile threats from the Europeans along the lines of, ‘Take this seriously or we’ll do…ooooooooh, something - and then you’ll all be sorry over in Washington, you see if you’re not!’.
No-one was remotely sorry of course, so Europe laid down a strict, final, final, final, ‘no, really, we mean it this time!’ deadline for action. Washington just ignored it. Or more accurately, the then-US Ambassador to the European Union bluntly informed the world:
As we’ve told the Europeans, we really don’t want to discuss this any further.
So Europe…well, did nothing.
The Biden balance
So is anything likely to change under Biden? Well, he is at least likely to be less hostile towards the European Union than his predecessor, who regularly fired up his fanbase with the Fake News that the EU had been deliberately created with the specific intention of harming the US:
European nations were set up in order to take advantage of the United States…The Europeans have taken advantage of us - I’m serious, worse than China.
Such xenophobic demonisation from the Commander-in-Chief is hopefully now a thing of the past and more international co-operation will lie ahead, but don’t expect Biden not to put American interests first - that’s kinda his day job now. And while he’s made noises about regulating and reining in some of the excesses of the social media industry, the tech sector is a US success story and massive GDP contributor that he’s not about to undermine, not matter how much foreign onlookers would like that to be the case.
Again, this is a long-running bone of contention between the US and Europe, with Obama accusing Brussels of acting out of barely-concealed tech envy in many of its calls for regulatory change and its leaning towards protectionist practices:
Sometimes the European response here is more commercially-driven than anything else…sometimes their vendors - their service providers - who can’t compete with ours, are essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there….And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues, sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests.
Ouch - and that from the US President that Europe adored. That’s gotta hurt. The trouble is, as diginomica noted at the time, there’s more than a little bit of truth to what Obama had to say and Europe gains nothing by pretending that there isn’t. Look at the top 30 or so tech firms in the world and count the non-US ones. (Spoiler - you’ll only need one hand!)
The other supposed inducement that von der Leyen lays out relates to social media platforms and the need to get tougher on the regulatory front. She lays this on pretty thick, tapping - perhaps unwisely given the uniting America theme espoused by Biden at his inauguration - into the attack on the US Capitol by rioters earlier this month as her jumping-off point:
Just a few days ago, several hundred of them stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action. That is what happens when hate speech and Fake News spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy. We should take these images from the USA as a sobering warning. Despite our deep-rooted confidence in our European democracy, we are not immune to similar events.
Europe values innovation and technology, she goes on, but adds:
New technologies must never mean that others decide how we live our lives. And that is exactly what I am talking about here…Put simply, we want to ensure that, in future, if something is illegal offline, it must also be illegal online. We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision.
And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate. This point is also important to me: No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump's account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules. It should be based on decisions of parliaments and politicians and not of Silicon Valley managers.
A lot of that probably finds a sympathetic ear in Biden and his advisors. The new President has made no secret of his view that there needs to be a review of how social media and Big Tech is regulated, albeit less abrasively than his predecessor, whose sledgehammer demands and attempts to bully Congress into taking radical action failed miserably in the dying days of his administration.
But while it’s a reasonable assumption that tech sector regulation will indeed be a topic that the Biden Presidency will turn its attention to at some, hopefully not-too-distant, point, it’s a course of action that US legislators will feel themselves more than capable of handling themselves, without the ‘assistance’ of a European politico chiming in with ‘helpful’ demands.
There’s a saying among free marketeers - the US innovates, the EU regulates. Biden isn’t Trump, but that viewpoint might be one of the few areas of common ground that they’d find they had. There’s a new team in charge in the US, but some things are unlikely to change.
Thanks for the offer, Ursula, but I think we’re good.