For the past two decades, the 2000 Electronic Commerce Directive has been the cornerstone of internet regulation in the European Union, and its safe harbors have played a crucial part in the creation of the modern internet. In recent years, however, rightholders, politicians, civil society groups and others have increasingly challenged the status quo, arguing that Europe has naively allowed itself to be exploited by unaccountable – mostly American – tech giants. Although these critics often disagree strongly about exactly what needs to be done and why, they have convinced legislators that something must be done. As a result, dozens of laws have been passed or proposed at the EU level in the last few years, transforming the legal environment in which platforms operate on everything from privacy, copyright, and free speech to competition, labor law, and tax. By acting first and asking questions later, the EU is hard at work establishing a de facto global standard for tech regulation.
The process is anything but smooth, and not everyone is convinced of the quality, cohesion or wisdom of the EU’s regulatory approach. Like it or loathe it, however, EU regulation has become a significant business concern for global tech companies. Although Europe’s population is dwarfed by those of rising powers such as China and India, its market of 500 million affluent consumers spread over 28 – more or less – coordinated member states is hard to ignore. Moreover, its regulatory innovations have a habit of catching on in other jurisdictions, and some elements of its approach to Big Tech are even gaining traction in the US. The EU is also projecting power beyond its borders by promoting its regulatory agenda within international bodies like the G7 and the OECD.
In this article, we discuss the current state of online platform regulation in Europe. European intermediary liability has law traditionally focused on the liability of internet access and hosting providers for their users’ unlawful activities, leaving it up to individual member states’ national law to craft a wide range of Good Samaritan obligations in relation to, for example, the production of subscriber data or the blocking of infringing websites. In recent years, this discussion has become more fundamental, more wide-ranging, and more fragmented, all at the same time. The essential question is what online platforms must do to keep their services safe and lawful, and to what extent they are responsible when they fail to do so.
Publication with Dorien Verhulst in MLRC Bulletin: Legal Frontiers in Digital Media 2019/1 – now paywalled, full text continues below.