Why Europe Is Willing To Regulate Tech More Than The U.S.

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 11:29 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook influence more of our lives every year. Congress has talked about regulating the tech giants without taking action. In Europe, it's a different story. Just before Christmas, the European Union's highest court issued a ruling against Uber. European courts have also said that Google has to remove some search results at a person's request. It's known as the right to be forgotten. To talk with us about why Europe is regulating these tech companies more aggressively than the U.S., Jonathan Zittrain joins us now. He's a professor of law and computer science at Harvard. Welcome.

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Do you see these as isolated examples, or do you think it is generally true that Europe is more willing to regulate these big tech companies than the U.S. is?

ZITTRAIN: I think as a general rule, the Europeans are more willing to regulate full stop. There's just a general appetite for regulation and a trust in government perhaps to do it right that may not culturally exist as much in the United States.

SHAPIRO: So I gave a couple of examples related to Uber and Google. The big tech giants also include Facebook, Amazon, Apple. Do you also see steps to regulate those companies?

ZITTRAIN: Yes. And I think it's - it maybe stems from the earliest days when the Internet went mainstream. I think late-'90s, early 2000s with the dot-com boom, there was some sense possibly, globally, about not wanting to kill the goose laying golden eggs. But we've had a number of eggs now. Not all of them appear to be golden. And there is some willingness now to do something about it. And of course for the Europeans, we see some sense that these aren't their own companies.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ZITTRAIN: They are companies from another country. And the fact that, well, maybe it will end up helping European competition might not be entirely absent from their thinking, too.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example of how one of these steps that Europe is taking might affect an Internet user in their daily lives.

ZITTRAIN: Well, the right to be forgotten that you mentioned is not a bad example. That's an instance where under an old regime from 1995, a Data Protection Directive, the European courts held that European citizens have a right if there is information that is, quote, "no longer relevant" about them - say, inside a search engine - they have an ability to make the case to that search engine - say, Google - that their name should no longer be linked with a particular set of results that they find embarrassing or unwanted.

SHAPIRO: I've actually Googled things when I'm in Europe. And with the results, it says at the bottom of the page, some results may be missing as a result of this right to be forgotten ruling.

ZITTRAIN: Well, it turns out that that kind of remedy might have been too clever by half because of course if you tell people there's something they don't know about a specific search, that's giving them a big hint that they should roll up their sleeves and start searching more. So those exact notices won't appear when there is something specifically missing. But there are general notifications that say you're in a regime where there may be less stuff than there might otherwise be.

SHAPIRO: This is obviously a subjective question. But in your opinion, are European regulators being overzealous, or are American regulators falling down on the job?

ZITTRAIN: Well, I think it's possible to say yes to both of those. In the case of Europe, there is a kind of aggressiveness at times that may not map to what we think the ideal regime would be. Now, the other half of the equation is it's been a little bit lax in the United States. And I think that may be changing.

But there's certainly been some sense of quite modest restrictions that have been hard-fought. When I think of, for example, the privacy restrictions placed on Internet service providers in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission saying you can't sort of snoop on what your own users are doing and try to sell that data anonymized or not, that was just reversed under the new American administration. So I think there is less of a regulatory hunger being demonstrated by the American executive branch.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law is the author of "The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It." He's also on the board of directors of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thanks so much.

ZITTRAIN: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.