How should the EU respond to the power and control that large online platforms exercise over crucial digital services, markets, and the public sphere? This is one of the key questions confronting policy-makers at the moment. The Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, the Fundación Pablo Iglesias, and the Fondazione Pietro Nenni, explore exactly that question in the policy paper “Governing online gatekeepers – Taking power seriously”. This paper is especially relevant in the context of the European Commission’s recent proposals for the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.
In the absence of public investment and legislation, the internet has evolved into an online ecosystem of powerful and private gatekeepers. The Covid-19 crisis once again underlined that large platforms function as essential social and economic infrastructure. Online retailers find it difficult to avoid Amazon, citizens find it difficult to avoid Facebook’s social media ecosystem, and everyone relies on Google to find and be found online. However, these gatekeepers regulate social activity via the technical design of their services, but in ways that are increasingly at odds with the public interest, societal well-being, and citizens’ rights.
The policy paper explores the EU’s existing policy approach to reign in large online platforms’ power and align their functioning with the public interest, and finds it has been ineffective (competition policy), overly accommodating and complex (the raft of self-regulatory initiatives on illegal content), and simply not properly enforced (notably the General Data Protection Regulation). The paper argues for public investment in digital infrastructure, and simple – but strictly enforced – public rules targeted at the biggest online gatekeepers.