EU infighting risks delaying landmark effort to curb Big Tech

Infighting between EU lawmakers has sparked fears that the bloc’s landmark legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech will be delayed.

The proposed Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, intended to clarify the policing responsibilities and restrain the power of Big Tech respectively, have been billed as urgent pieces of regulation because of concerns that the likes of Google and Facebook have become too powerful.

Margrethe Vestager, the executive vice-president of the EU and competition commissioner, has said she hopes an agreement between the European Parliament, member states and the European Commission can be reached by “spring 2022”.

Last week Vestager again urged MEPs to speed up adoption of the legislation. “So now’s the moment — as Bowie might have put it — when you can be heroes,” she said.

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But multiple European Parliament committees are bickering over who will spearhead debate on the proposals before an MEP vote to enact the legislation. No clear winner has emerged after discussions and a series of internal appeals, but some lawmakers expect a final decision later this month.

“We are now in the middle of the conflict of competence which prevents us from dealing with the substance,” said Stephanie Yon-Courtin, vice-chair of the committee on economic and monetary affairs, which is seeking to secure control of the debate. “Speed is of the essence but as far as the European Parliament is concerned we don’t have the opportunity to discuss [the draft rules].”

Vestager has already shown signs of frustration. She recently told MEPs: “I hope you sense the same urgency as I do. I’d use the metaphor that this is a wake-up call without the snooze function. I really hope that we will have a good debate leading to a swift adoption. This is timely, this is now.”

Some EU member states have expressed concern about parliament dragging its feet. A European Council draft urged MEPs to “take work swiftly forward” to enact the legislation. Brussels published the draft proposals in December.

France and Germany are pursuing their own legislative agenda to curb Big Tech, undermining Brussels’ push for a single, bloc-wide set of rules as they seek to blaze a trail in regulating Big Tech ahead of Brussels.

There is also pressure from some small businesses within in the EU, which argue that proposed rules intended to help actually threatened to damage them. The App Association, a trade body representing hundreds of small app developers in the bloc, warned that the legislation could deter large platforms from buying small rivals.

“The DMA risks generating unintended consequences that could indirectly affect SMEs’ business models, growth ambitions, or exit strategies,” the body said in a report.

Vestager has insisted the proposals aim to strike the right balance. “We do not want to under-enforce nor to over-enforce,” she said in a speech this month.

Rivals to Big Tech say they continue to be undermined in key markets and that regulators must urgently enact the rules even if they are not perfect.

Richard Stables, chief executive of comparison site Kelkoo, told the Financial Times: “It’s like a countdown. By the time rules come into place there may be no competition left or it will take a miracle for a competitor to come back.”

EU officials played down concerns of delays to debating the regulations and argued that discussions among MEPs and disagreements between member states were part of the normal process of lawmaking. They added that early next year remained a feasible target for enacting the legislation.

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