Dec 16, 2021 - Technology

How the U.S. is taking cues from Europe on tech policy

Illustration of two cursors shaking hands, with sleeves showing the US and European Union flags.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Europe is leading the way as Congress and U.S. regulators slowly figure out how America could regulate the digital economy.

Why it matters: Europe's tech regulation influence on the U.S. marks a notable shift in the setting of global standards as international lawmakers continue to scrutinize Big Tech.

Driving the news: EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager visited the U.S. last week, receiving a warm welcome and meeting with U.S. administration officials and members of Congress.

  • She met with kindred spirits at the top of the Biden administration — Justice Department antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter and Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan — and the three announced a new "joint technology competition policy dialogue."

Increasingly, U.S. policymakers have shown interest in at least four specific areas of Europe's work in the tech regulation arena.

Competition: The EU has aggressively brought antitrust suits against American tech giants. It's also on the precipice of turning the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which aims to address what the EU sees as a lack of competition in the digital economy, into law.

  • There are similarities between the DMA and competition bills being considered by Congress in both the House and the Senate, including laying out which companies are "monopolies" and restricting certain behaviors for such companies.

Content moderation: The other major piece of legislation wending its way through the European Parliament is the Digital Services Act (DSA), set to be voted on by EU parliament early next year. It would create new rules for how tech goes after illegal content online and boost visibility into the decisions platforms make about content.

  • Congress has similarly discussed the need for companies to be more transparent about their algorithms, how their platforms work and the decision-making processes behind their rules, but have yet to agree on an overarching solution.
  • One Senate bill would give consumers more information about algorithms and their online experiences. Another bill, the PACT Act, would increase transparency requirements for content moderation practices.

Privacy: Without a comprehensive U.S. consumer privacy law, U.S. state and federal lawmakers have looked towards Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a Western democracy case study.

  • More U.S. states are expected to introduce their own privacy laws in 2022. GDPR, which served as inspiration for California's privacy law, seems likely to continue being the de facto model.
  • China has recently passed its own comprehensive consumer privacy law, though it does not protect citizens' privacy from the Chinese government.

Artificial intelligence: The European Commission released a landmark proposal for AI regulation in April. Should it go into effect, it would define AI systems, set rules and assess levels of risks.

  • Meanwhile, the U.S. is developing an AI Bill of Rights, which could "clarify the rights and freedoms we expect data-driven technologies to respect," Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander and deputy director Alondra Nelson wrote in Wired in October.
  • Lander and Nelson met with Vestager last week to discuss research and cooperation on the possible bill of rights document.

The big picture: Despite all of its posturing and hearings with high-level tech executives, Congress has failed to act on new legislation for the tech industry. Meanwhile, Europe has forged ahead with comprehensive regulations.

What they're saying: Without U.S. action, “Europe is going to continue leading the global charge on tech regulation," says Justin Sherman, fellow at the Atlantic Council.

  • "That should incentivize the US government to do better if it wants to be a global leader here, lest it lose influence and credibility with the many other countries with whom we need to cooperate.”
  • "We have different systems for creating and implementing new policies, which sometimes leads one government or another to act more quickly," said Aaron Cooper, vice president of global policy for BSA | The Software Alliance. "But what’s important is that there are similar objectives."

Yes, but: Not every U.S. administration official has been quick to embrace the European model. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo made waves last week when she expressed wariness over the DMA and the DSA.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Office of Science and Technology Policy deputy director Alondra Nelson's participation in artificial intelligence discussions.

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