The Irish Times view on the regulation of big tech: the light-touch era is finally over

The investigations announced by the EU yesterday into Apple, Alphabet and Meta are just the latest in a series of moves on both sides of the Atlantic

For big technology companies, a long era of general tolerance and light regulation is drawing to a close, and not before time. The investigations announced by the EU yesterday into Apple, Alphabet and Meta are just the latest sign of this.

Apple serves as a prominent signpost of the shift. Having largely avoided punishments over the years, it has found itself in the headlines three times over recent weeks. On March 4th, the EU fined the company an eye-watering €1.8 billion for stifling competition in music streaming through its gatekeeping of rival apps in its App Store. Then, last Thursday, the US government filed an antitrust suit alleging the company made it difficult for customers to switch from iPhones to competitors’ devices by throttling some competitor services and apps. Apple argues that such tight controls give iPhone users better services and protections.

This was followed by Monday’s announcement from the European Commission of an investigation under the Digital Markets Act which came into effect earlier this month.

In the US, all of the largest tech companies –Apple, Google, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft – have now been threatened with federal antitrust actions. This marks a dramatic revival of one of the US government’s most powerful legal weapons, mostly dormant since a big antitrust win against Microsoft over two decades ago. US federal agencies have also issued huge fines against many tech giants in recent years, and Congress is considering further regulation in new areas, such as AI.

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But Europe now leads the way on regulation. The EU has long been to the forefront of regulating Big Tech, most notably on data protection and privacy rights with the GDPR almost six years ago, followed by three sweeping pieces of regulation in the past year: the Digital Services, Digital Markets, and AI Acts.

Its latest move is designed to examine the “gatekeeper” role of the big players and whether the companies have gone far enough to allow free choice for consumers and businesses. The potential penalties are significant and the investigations are set to last about one year.

Though the EU, like the US, missed significant past opportunities to rein in budding tech monopolies, particularly by failing to block key acquisitions at critical points, it has dramatically narrowed the ability of companies to act with impunity or without oversight. Much EU legislation can be adjusted for change, too, making it more difficult for companies to evade scrutiny if new technologies outpace existing regulation.

Because it legislated while the US dithered, the EU is the de facto global regulator for Big Tech. But the US has its own formidable regulatory toolkit, and is showing a fresh willingness to use and – equally welcome – to strengthen it.

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