US tech giants are facing the threat of an EU attempt to break them up after France and the Netherlands jointly issued a call for the bloc’s competition authorities to take pre-emptive measures as they prepare sweeping legislation to curb the companies’ market power.
Cedric O, France’s digital minister, and Mona Keijzer, the Netherlands state secretary for digital affairs, have signed a position paper calling on regulators in Brussels to take swift action against emerging tech giants and existing “gatekeeper” platforms — including options to break them up.
Proponents of curbing the power of Big Tech argue that structural separation of big platforms would diminish their dominant position and help smaller rivals thrive.
The paper urges regulators to explore measures including forcing the likes of Facebook and Apple to allow their users to take their private data to a competing platform or banning companies such as Google from promoting their own services at the expense of smaller rivals.
Paris and The Hague have traditionally held divergent views on how to regulate the tech industry, with the French government leading the push for stringent laws against everything from illegal content to strict data protection measures.
The Netherlands has historically taken a more liberal approach, but has joined a call for tough enforcement of competition rules to prevent tech giants favouring their own services to crowd out rivals and “entrench” their market dominance.
Ms Keijzer said regulators should aim for rules that prevent platforms from becoming “too big” in the first place. But added: “Breaking up big companies can be a possibility.”
“Breaking up [companies] is on the table. But this is the ultimate remedy,” said Mr O. “France and the Netherlands have different cultures and come from different positions. But we have a common interest, from a sovereignty point of view, from a competition point of view to regulate tech players.”
The push from the capitals comes as Brussels is drawing up landmark new rules on regulating large online platforms, particularly big US companies.
EU regulators are setting criteria that would mean up to 20 companies, including Facebook and Google, would be hit with new and far tougher rules.
Senior figures inside the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, have also been vocal about the need to restrain Big Tech. France’s EU commissioner Thierry Breton has warned Brussels will consider breaking up large platforms or even force them to sell units in extreme circumstances.
Regulators in Brussels are increasingly ambitious about clamping down on Big Tech. The EU is working on an overhaul of internet rules as part of the Digital Services Act, which will seek to legislate on illegal content, ad transparency and disinformation.
Separately, Brussels is also drafting legislation for the Digital Markets Act, which will include rules against anti-competitive behaviour, removing the need for lengthy antitrust investigations that sometimes take too long and often achieve very little.
France and the Netherlands have clashed over significant EU policy issues in recent months, including how far to fund the bloc’s upcoming long-term budget and the financing of a €750bn Covid-19 recovery fund. However, they have found agreement in other areas, including a push for tough environmental standards in EU trade deals and joint demands to protect the bloc’s single market from foreign subsidised companies.
Ms Keijzer said the countries’ alignment on Big Tech was a sign they were willing to meet each other “halfway” in their demands for the Digital Services Act. Mr O said the joint position on technology regulation was a clear indication of both countries’ support for the EU’s efforts to curb the power of Big Tech.