Google and Facebook are the talk of Brussels as EU elections loom

18 September 2018 2:05pm
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6 September 2018. By Michael Acton and Karoline Del Vecchio

How to regulate US tech giants is shaping up to be a key theme in next year’s EU elections, as Europe’s ruling parties try to galvanize public support in the face of new populist contenders.

The European People’s Party, a symbol of the EU establishment and the biggest group in the European Parliament, has notably turned its sights on “huge Internet companies” in recent weeks, with a focus on finding a “fair” solution to regulating them.

That stands in contrast to the last election in 2014 when Jean-Claude Juncker — then the EPP’s candidate for the European Commission presidency, which he won — campaigned on a platform of unlocking the huge potential of the digital economy.

The shift appears to reflect a change in public mood as Internet giants, once praised almost universally as drivers of economic growth and social progress, showed a darker side with scandals over their tax arrangements, their role in spreading fake news and propaganda, and their processing of users’ sensitive data.

With establishment parties under attack from populist parties across the political spectrum, they may be hoping that this hot-button issue can shore up their public appeal and inspire voters to turn out in May 2019 — never an easy task outside the Brussels bubble.

— Staying in power —

Manfred Weber, who hopes to follow Juncker’s path to the presidency as the EPP’s lead candidate, or “spitzenkandidat,” set out his stall today at a party conference in Vienna.

"Digitalization, globalization and the dominance of some Internet giants call for more discussion in Europe about what 'fairness' means in the 21st century," he said.

Austrian Chancellor and fellow EPP member Sebastian Kurz, hosting the conference, said there was a need to update tax rules to ensure “huge Internet companies” are treated in the same way as traditional businesses.

“It’s necessary to put in place fair tax systems to avoid a situation where small and medium-sized companies are fully taxed, in contrast to huge Internet companies from the US or Asia paying no or few taxes,” Kurz said.

Kurz has previously noted his support for a new commission proposal to tax the revenue of digital multinationals, a controversial measure opposed by many member states.

— Fake news —

Public opinion toward social-media platforms seems to be turning increasingly negative, particularly after recent scandals involving Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation before the US presidential election and the UK Brexit vote, both in 2016.

For example, a commission poll of public opinion in Europe, published in April this year, showed that 83 percent of respondents believed “fake news” distributed through social media platforms was a problem for democracy.

By targeting Facebook and other platforms, then, the EPP can demonstrate its democratic credentials as it battles against opponents who accuse it of being part of a sclerotic, opaque European establishment.

— Taxes —

The tax affairs and business practices of US tech companies have also come under EU scrutiny in recent years — though there are fewer available indications of public opinion on that subject.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager — widely seen as another potential candidate for the commission presidency, for the liberal ALDE group — has led the charge with a record 4.3 billion-euro fine against Google ($5 billion) over its Android mobile operating platform, and an order for Ireland to collect 13 billion euros in taxes from Apple.

She has also championed the idea that these companies must behave “fairly” — the same word that cropped up again and again at the EPP’s conference today, titled “New Fairness for Europe.”

If nothing else, the “EU vs US tech giants” narrative generates acres of column space. In elections where turnout is typically low, the EPP and other establishment parties may have calculated that all publicity is good publicity.