Davos highlights: Ursula Von der Leyen urges US to join clampdown on Big Tech

The World Economic Forum or Davos, the annual gathering of the world’s political and business leaders, is taking place virtually this year due to the pandemic. The FT brings you highlights from day two.

The president of the European Commission has urged the new US administration to join the EU’s attempts to “contain the immense power” of Big Tech.

Ursula von der Leyen said Brussels wanted social media giants to disclose how their business models operated and their algorithms worked “because we cannot accept that decisions that have a far-reaching impact on our democracy are taken by computer programmes alone”. 

Ms von der Leyen said Twitter’s decision to remove Donald Trump’s account earlier this month was a “serious interference with freedom of expression”. She said such decisions “should not be based on company rules alone” but regulators should create a “framework of laws for such far-reaching decisions”.

Brussels last year published draft versions of the EU’s Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act that are designed to curb the market power of Big Tech and crack down on illegal online content.

Ms von der Leyen urged the new White House administration to join the EU’s efforts, after tense relations with Mr Trump over the regulation of predominantly US tech companies. 

“I want to invite our friends in the United States to join our initiatives. Together we could create a digital economy rule book,” she said. 

Elsewhere, vaccine distribution was the focus of attention. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa urged richer countries to stop hoarding vaccines or risk prolonging the pandemic as Africa faces being left behind in the global race for inoculations.

“We are deeply concerned about the problem of ‘vaccine nationalism’, which, unless addressed, will endanger the recovery of all countries,” he said, adding that some countries had bought much more than they needed.

African countries are yet to begin large-scale vaccinations and even South Africa, the region’s most industrialised economy, is only expecting its first consignment this month.

Those concerns have prompted Saudi Arabia to consider setting up an initiative to distribute vaccines to poor countries in the Middle East and Africa, separate to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative.

The new initiative, revealed by the Saudi finance minister in a panel with the FT’s editor Roula Khalaf, comes amid frustration at the slow pace of the Covax scheme that is meant to distribute 2bn coronavirus vaccines, especially to poorer nations, by the end of the year.

Other Davos participants have been grappling with the prospect of runaway markets. Thomas Buberl, chief executive of French insurer Axa, expressed concern about the impact of the prolonged period of low interest rates on asset bubbles and urged the need to protect confidence in financial markets if the pandemic crisis dragged on.

“One issue clearly for me is how can we exit this period of low interest rates in a way that it is, on the one hand, finding a good balance and not choking the recovery,” said Mr Buberl.

“It is clear some markets have very, very high valuations today, in particular when you look at stocks. The question is, when it comes back to normal, what does it mean to these valuations?”

Confidence in the financial system risked being undermined if the pandemic continued for longer than expected, be it through slow vaccination rollouts or mutant strains of the virus spreading, he said.

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