Can Big Tech be regulated? That was the question put before a panel of experts and practitioners last week during SIPA’s 2023 Niejelow-Rodin Global Digital Futures Policy Forum.
Co-sponsored by SIPA’s Technology, Media, and Communications specialization, under the leadership of Professor Anya Schiffrin, and Columbia World Projects, the panelists at Regulating Big Tech: Lessons from Around the World highlighted the complexities of regulating digital giants like Google, Apple, Facebook (Meta), and Amazon, as well as up-and-comers like OpenAI, whose ChatGPT made a splash when it was released late last year.
Moderated by Dean Emerita Merit E. Janow, the Thursday panel featured Rod Sims, a professor at Australian National University, University Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz, Bruno Liebhaberg, the founder and director general of the European think tank CERRE (the Centre on Regulation in Europe), and Eleanor Fox, the Walter J. Derenberg Professor of Trade Regulation Emerita and Professor at NYU Law.
The panelists agreed there has been little convergence to date around regulatory standards and frameworks to rein in Big Tech, even as Australia and the European Union are taking the lead to impose firmer restrictions against the tech giants.
The United States and Europe may share values but not always economic interests.
— Bruno Liebhaberg, Centre on Regulation in Europe
“Regulation, I would say, is very much impacted by two kinds of drivers,” said Liebhaberg. “The first one is the economic interests of those states that enact regulations, but the other are the collective preferences that each region, each country will have.” He said the United States and Europe may “share similar values [but] we may not always share similar economic interests.”
According to Liebhaberg, these differing interests and differing frameworks are changing the way we experience digital platforms and innovations, and not always for the better.
Asked about the social and economic harms caused by Big Tech, Stiglitz recited a litany of examples, including “issues of privacy and surveillance [and] issues related to mis- and disinformation that go over the platforms, including those related to incitement, hate speech, political intervention, the health consequences of spreading misinformation about vaccines threatens everybody in our society.”
On the economic front, Stiglitz fretted about the lack of competition, calling it “a real concern [that] spills over from lack of competition into platforms.”
“The way the platforms take on information and reinforce their market power also undermines the fundamental principles of market economies,” he added.
Sims, a regulatory expert who served as the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, largely agreed. “You've got a complete monopoly in ad tech, which pushes up the price of digital advertising,” he said. “You've got the duopoly of apps, and that pushes up prices there,” he said, going on to condemn “a lack of choice of service [and] the stifling of innovation.”
Unlike the United States, SIms added, Australia has passed some meaningful digital tech regulation, including a new law aimed at leveling the playing field between digital platforms and news publishers. “Part of the regulation that's happening worldwide is to promote innovation, and I think it can do more to promote innovation than just letting it run its own course.”
With countries starting to crack down on Big Tech’s free reign over the digital tech market, the United States is lagging behind. According to NYU’s Fox, the United States is stuck in an ideological debate: Where some observers see progress and innovation and want to leave Big Tech alone, others see the companies as overly powerful and intrusive.
“This ideological debate is happening in the United States, and the libertarian side has the major cards in the deck because of our Supreme Court, which hands down very libertarian-leaning decisions,” Fox said.
Leaving the courts to decide the fate of Big Tech, with antitrust cases, has hobbled the United States’ ability to be a regulatory leader in this space.
As countries and regions like Australia, China, and the EU consider how to forge a consensus around digital regulation and norms, Sims sounded optimistic about some of the latest legislation passed in Europe, such as the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act.
“The Digital Services Act is largely about electronic safety,” he said. “It's about disinformation and it's the first in the world. I think it's going to get copied. It's fairly weak at the moment, but I think as it evolves, it will strengthen.”