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How can Europe reduce its digital dependence on large platform companies?

01 June 2022
Europe digitale afhankelijkheid

Foto: Denise Jans - Unsplash

Een bezorger van Thuisbezorgd fietst over een brug

In April 2022, an agreement was reached in the EU on two legislative packages aimed at increasing European digital autonomy: the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). The DMA tackles the market power of very large online platforms, so called ‘gatekeepers’. The goal of the DSA is to create a safer online environment for European citizens and consumers and combat the distribution of illegal content online. In the coming months, the Rathenau Instituut will investigate what causes European digital dependence and how this dependence can be further reduced.

In short:

  • The DSA and DMA include measures to give European governments and citizens more control over, for example, data usage, and to strengthen the supervision of a fair market online.
  • The Rathenau Instituut investigates how European societies can become more digitally independent from large platform companies.

Digital independence

European societies are becoming increasingly dependent on multinational platform companies, such as Google, Amazon, Meta and Apple. This dependence is increasingly perceived as problematic by governments, civil society organisations, and citizens alike, as it puts a strain on public values such as safety and democratic freedoms.

For public duties regarding, for example, education, defence, or health care, European governments are dependent on large platform companies. Europe wants to change this. Europe also aims to make data more accessible to parties in its internal market. These data are now largely in the hands of non-European multinational platform companies. The pursuit of greater digital autonomy was recently explicitly mentioned in the new Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles, and in the Dutch government's digitalisation strategy (Rutte IV).

For years, the Rathenau Instituut has been pointing out the social risks of our digital dependence on multinational platform companies. We have observed, for example, that large platforms increasingly provide the infrastructure for online public debate. The spread of disinformation, the rise of deepfakes, and political microtargeting are putting this public debate under pressure.

Measures in the Digital Markets Act

The DMA appears to reduce European dependence on the largest platforms. The act introduces new rules that are specifically aimed at the so-called gatekeepers. These are companies with a market capitalisation of at least 75 billion euros or an annual turnover of 7.5 billion euros and, additionally, at least 45 million users per month.

Measures in the Digital Services Act

The DSA introduces new rules aimed in particular at the largest online platforms and providers of online intermediary services, such as hosting services and internet providers¹The DSA contains stricter measures for online platforms (such as marketplaces and social media companies) and very large online platforms (Very Large Online Platforms, or VLOPs, and Very Large Online Search Engines, or VLOSEs). Companies are considered Very Large Online Platforms if they have a reach of at least 45 million users per month through their services. Online platforms and search engines can be fined up to 6% of their worldwide turnover for violations.

How will the DSA and the DMA reduce Europe's digital dependence?

In our Messages to Parliament on the DSA and DMA we advocate for increasing users' control over the use of their data and over recommendation algorithms on online platforms. The starting point for this should be making it easier for users to refuse data collection and to determine which data they wish to share. Online platforms should also give users mandatory insight into the reason why they receive certain content, plus the possibility to make changes if they no longer wish to receive that content.

The DSA and DMA include important measures to increase users' control over their data. For example, the DMA gives both corporate and individual European users more access to their data. The DSA also empowers users by allowing them to influence the way in which content is recommended to them and by giving them greater ability to appeal (in relation to decisions by platforms on removal of content).

In our Messages to Parliament, we underlined the importance of mandatory risk analysis (a due diligence obligation) in the DSA, which enables democratic oversight of the social impact of online platforms.

In short, the DSA and DMA include measures to reduce the digital dependence of European societies. The question is whether these measures are sufficient to achieve the desired European digital independence. This will partly depend on the effectiveness of the national supervisory bodies that will be established, the Digital Services Coordinators. 

What will the Rathenau Institute research?

Governments, NGOs, and companies have already undertaken many initiatives for digital independence, such as the DSA and the DMA, but also PublicSpaces or Gaia-x. However, the size and diversity of these initiatives make it difficult to assess the extent to which these initiatives collectively address the main causes of dependence. In the coming months, the Rathenau Instituut will investigate the causes of European digital dependence and how this dependence can be reduced. Up until now, these causes have not always been made explicit in policy plans. We will also map out initiatives for digital independence and what causes they do and perhaps do not address.

¹ Based on press releases from both European Commission, European Council and European Parliament.

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