‘This Is a New Phase’: Europe Shifts Tactics to Limit Tech’s Power

In Germany, authorities said they were debating rules to restrict how the tech companies use their dominance in one area to enter new markets. In recent years, Apple has leveraged its strength in smartphones and tablets to subsidize its entrance into the video-streaming market, Google has used its search engine to offer travel services and Facebook has offered new e-commerce services off its base of social networking.

“If a platform is so big and if a platform has such a powerful position, there are opportunities to abuse this power,” said Andreas Mundt, Germany’s top antitrust regulator.

In France, policymakers are debating a new law that would censor hate speech online, making Facebook, YouTube and Twitter legally liable for content posted by users, though the proposal is already facing legal challenges. Germany has adopted a similar proposal, and Britain and the European Union are considering such measures as well. France is also leading an effort with Italy and the European Union to force the tech companies to pay more taxes.

Many hurdles remain before the proposals become law. Some question whether the regulations would be effective, particularly if they take years to enact. Others said any laws could be watered down during the legislative process as companies pour money into lobbying, or that in a rush to get something done, flawed policy will be put into place.

“There is a desire to ‘go further,’ but European regulators are struggling to define the specific problems they want to fix,” said Joe McNamee, a veteran internet policy consultant in Brussels, who is particularly concerned about new online censorship rules. “Badly designed measures are unlikely to achieve their goals at the same time as creating collateral damage.”

William E. Kovacic, a professor specializing in antitrust law at George Washington University, said that even if many of the proposals did not become law, the increased scrutiny alone would lead the tech companies to change behavior.

“It’s like the policeman at your elbow,” he said.

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