By Svenja Hahn, MEP, Vice President of the European Liberal Forum
“Digitising Europe” is the new ELF Blogposts series that engage with policymakers, industry experts, and academics in order to contribute to a better understanding of how technological change is also driving social, political, and regulatory affairs. Understanding ongoing processes in Cyberspace, regulatory framework of digital market, digital platforms, space, Artificial Intelligence and how those new technological advancements impact our societies is essential to gauging and mitigating the impact of new technologies on our societies.
2021 is going to be a crucial year for our digital future in the EU. Apart from debates around connectivity and the 5G rollout or a digital tax, three areas of European digital policy are going to play a tremendous role: The Digital Services Act (DSA), the Digital Markets Act (DMA) as well as the legislative proposals on Artificial Intelligence (AI). These legislations will define Europe’s digital way for the next decades.
As a liberal, it is of utmost importance to me that this groundbreaking legislation will be open for innovation, paving the way for a European Union that is at the forefront of digital developments in the world. But we also need to ensure that technology and digitalisation are human-centred and based on our European values and fundamental rights. Only a common European framework can avoid a Single Market fragmentation because a prosperous digital Europe needs a real Digital Single Market to rise to its full potential.
The platform economy and fair competition
The platform economy has changed our lives remarkably in the last two decades. Communications between friends or at work have never been as easy. But digital platforms became a major arena as well for political debates. Customers have access to products and sellers, which they would have never had access to until a few years ago. New business models have evolved – on a large scale as well as for individuals or small companies.
At the same time, new challenges have arisen. The protection of fundamental rights, like freedom of speech, in an online sphere, are not only disputed in authoritarian regimes. In Europe, we are still in the middle of debates around illegal and harmful content on online platforms, hate-speech, fake news, automated content filters and censorship. Moreover, the power of big tech companies and unfair competition are discussed in media and politics almost on a daily basis.
To create a real Digital Single Market, it needs a regulatory framework fit for the digital age, with clear rules for e-commerce and online services. Therefore, lawmakers in the Commission and the Parliament need to ensure a level playing field for innovative startups and small enterprises vis-à-vis the tech giants.
This is why the European Commission presented its DSA/DMA package in December to foster the benefits and tackle online platforms’ challenges. From a liberal perspective, our two Renew Europe affiliated Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton, presented proposals based on liberal principles aiming into a promising direction.
Unfair practices like favouring own brands by dominant platforms at the expense of other providers must be stopped. Illegal content must be removed as quickly as possible. It is right and essential that the Commission follows the principle of demanding more responsibility from big platforms than smaller providers. Excessive bureaucracy for smaller platform operators should be avoided, and the crucial aspect of limited liability will be retained, according to the DSA proposal.
However, some aspects of the Commission’s proposals need to be improved by the European Parliament in the further process. One of the main objectives of the DSA is to regulate illegal content on platforms and remove it according to the principals of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, in the current draft, I see the same problem that national lawmakers have struggled with in the past years as well: the decision of what is illegal is – at least partially – externalised to the platforms. Private companies must not take these decisions; on the contrary, it is juridical systems’ task and should not be outsourced.
Moreover, in the Parliament, I will work to ensure that there will be no upload filter obligation through the back door and no incentives for unjustified deletion of content. This would threaten the freedom of expression that we have to defend.
With regard to the DMA, new competition rules are important but must not lead to hidden protectionism. The EU will not become a digital player by cutting itself off from the USA but by creating its own framework for innovation through fair competition. We need to work together with the Biden administration for fair standards in global digital policy.
Being smart about AI
When it comes to the legal framework for Artificial Intelligence, we face very similar debates and challenges. Many lawmakers and governments are still not fully grasping the potential AI have to change our lives. Especially as, Artificial Intelligence is not only a technology of the future. It already covers a wide range of applications and uses – from algorithms that suggest products or music according to our taste to cancer diagnostics or the development of vaccines and drugs. I am convinced that innovation through AI will be a driver for positive change for the benefit of our whole society as well as for our European economy.
Nevertheless, we also need safeguards against some uses of AI, which are not in line with core liberal values. We have to avoid discrimination through AI applications such as mass surveillance or social scoring systems of human beings. I strongly oppose the use of facial recognition technologies by authorities in public spaces as I consider it a serious breach of citizen’s fundamental rights.
Looking at the opportunities for innovation through AI, we need to make sure to enable innovators instead of hampering new ideas through burdensome regulation. The future European legislative framework needs to be technologically open and define very clear rules, avoiding unnecessary red tape.
Additionally, a high level of consumer protection needs to be ensured, no matter if consumers use an AI-enabled or a “classical” product. For some sectors, we will need to differentiate between different risk levels of AI applications or uses.
We need to assess whether our current legislation in the different sectors is fit for the digital age. Where it is not, we need to adapt it to new technologies like AI, robotics or the Internet of Things. In general, the EU’s legal framework already protects fundamental and consumer rights on a high level. But we need to ensure that it also covers new technologies. This is going to be a big task for the European co-legislators in the coming months and years.
ELF platform for digital dialogue
As mentioned initially, 2021 is going to be a crucial year for the legislative processes for all of these milestones of digital policy in Europe. The DSA, the DMA and the legal framework for Artificial Intelligence must form an innovation-friendly and legally certain framework to unleash the digital potential of our continent and to protect the fundamental rights of our citizens.
I am therefore looking forward to the highly topical new ELF blogpost series on technological change and to the valuable contributions by policymakers, experts and academics. Because taking the right decisions for the future of a digital Europe is a common task. It requires dialogue between all affected stakeholders and listening to different perspectives.
Svenja Hahn: The 31 year old German is a member of the European Parliament since 2019 and is a member of the Free Democratic Party, which is part of the Renew Europe Group and the ALDE Party. She serves as a member in the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age (AIDA) with a focus on legislation on digital and AI. As Vice President of ELF, she is the patron of this blog series.
Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum.