Trade Talks Should Keep Startups in Mind. Representatives from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico met in D.C. this week to kick off talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. You may think of things like auto manufacturing and government contracts when you hear NAFTA, but it has major implications for U.S. startups that do business abroad or plan to do business abroad.
Operating a digital business in the European Union (EU) has long been a challenge due to the often conflicting patchwork of member state regulations that impact online enterprises. Recognizing the drag this regulatory inconsistency has on the future of the EU digital economy, the European Commission (EC) has been hard at work crafting a Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy that would further integrate the U.S. and EU economies, remove regulatory barriers across European states, and promote digital trade within the EU.
The EC’s DSM efforts are critical to growing Europe’s Internet economy, which is why many American stakeholders have welcomed parts of the DSM and European regulators’ efforts to reduce burdens on startups. But, unfortunately, the EC recently asked for feedback on policies that would have the opposite effect and harm online enterprises. Virtually every segment of the Internet community expressed alarm when the EC released a public consultation late last year regarding potential new regulations for online platforms and intermediaries.
The EC’s consultation purported to gather information on how it should regulate so-called “online platforms,” (e.g. search engines like Google or Bing, social networks like Facebook or Twitter, collaborative economy platforms like AirBnB or TaskRabbit, etc.) and in doing so, it signaled to the Internet community that it may issue regulations that, while well-intentioned, are misguided and potentially destructive. The EC’s approach to platform regulation isn’t just a problem for online intermediaries; it poses a threat to the Internet ecosystem as a whole. Not surprisingly then, the consultation saw filings from an enormous range of stakeholders — from large technology trade associations, to public interest organizations, to individual startups — all of whom express similar concerns with the EC’s approach.
Problems with the “Platform Consultation”
There are three key problems with the EC’s platform consultation.
First, online platform regulation as defined in the consultation does not make conceptual sense. The consultation purports to concern “online platforms,” though the range of activities it sweeps into this one category reveals the central flaw in the EC’s regulatory approach. It is simply impossible to craft sensible rules that target “online platforms,” as the consultation defines that term so broadly as to encompass an almost limitless range of activities that share little in common beyond an Internet presence.
- As the Center for Democracy and Technology — a leading Internet policy nonprofit — notes in its submission, the definition of “online platform” used in the consultation “is so broad that it captures just about any website and any online application in operation in Europe and globally.”
- In purporting to regulate “business in sectors as varied as media, connected cars, financial exchange and commerce” under the same standard, the consultation seems to ignore that “the regulatory needs of those sectors are appropriately distinct from one another,” as the Computer and Communications Industry Association — a trade association representing leading technology and computing firms — explains in its submission.
- The Internet Association — another trade association representing some of the most innovative technology companies in the world — points outthe folly in this indiscriminate approach to regulation, asking, “In the physical world, one would not regulate banks, hotels, etc. in the same way, so why regulate the 21st Century version of those services in a blanket way simply because they are ‘on the Internet’?”
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a business federation that represents the interests of American companies — notes in its submission that “the [online platform] definition offered misses the mark and we caution against attempting to regulate something that is inherently difficult to define. Platform is not a useful legal or regulatory category as many markets, businesses and services are ‘platforms,’ both online and off, and this essentially includes any function on the continuum between manufacturer/creator and end user.”
General purpose laws are sufficient
Second, even if it was possible to encapsulate all of these entities under a single, well-defined umbrella, the EC does not provide adequate justification for why this class of businesses and services should be subject to an entirely unique regulatory scheme in the first place. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes, “Nowhere does the consultation explain why online ‘platforms’ should be treated in a distinct manner from other businesses.” Yet the consultation foreshadows a heavy-handed regulatory approach that would suppress innovation and significantly increase burdens for entities subject to the new framework.
Reducing, not increasing, burdens on intermediaries fosters speech and creativity
Finally, the consultation signals an intent to increase the liability of intermediaries for illegal third party content beyond existing general law. This is an ill-advised approach. As TechNet — a trade association representing U.S. technology CEOs and senior executives — notes in their filing, “Strong intermediary liability protections promote innovation, empower users and small businesses to use platforms to reach a global audience, and encourage free expression and the democratization of access to information.” The open Internet think tank Public Knowledge put it succinctly in its submission: “The existence of strong and clear limitations on liability for platforms has been critical to the flourishing of online platforms for user expression and speech.”
One needs only look to the intermediary liability regime in the U.S. to recognize how critical such limitations are in facilitating technology innovation. The explosive growth of the Internet sector in the U.S. — and of so-called “Web 2.0” companies in particular — is a direct result of strong laws limiting intermediary liability, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For its part, the EU has crafted a “balanced, effective and proportionate [liability regime in the EU’s E-Commerce Directive] and has promoted dynamic, competitive services in a technologically neutral way” (TechNet filing). But the implication in the recent consultation that the EC is considering rethinking this strategy to expand the liability of online platforms is incredibly dangerous for the Internet economy, as it would threaten to chill innovation and dramatically increase barriers to entry for smaller players.
The EC’s DSM effort has the potential to completely transform the transatlantic digital economy. But if implemented incorrectly, it could have a grave impact on the European innovation ecosystem and widen the gap between the U.S. and EU digital markets. The sheer number of stakeholders who responded to the EC’s consultation with concerns should raise a red flag for the Commission and convince it to reconsider its approach. Links to some of these responses are below, and over the coming weeks, a number of these stakeholders will use this platform to further outline their concerns. Check back for updates here.