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Digital Platforms

    • Meeting in digital format
    • 12 July 2021

          The digital revolution has profoundly changed how goods and services are consumed by increasing their availability online, thereby enhancing the role of web platforms. Indeed, these latter have been an essential tool for extending political rights such as freedom of speech, and for framing new ones, especially within the economic sphere, such as consumer rights. At the same time, however, they have laid the groundwork for a concentration of overriding powers, and the abuse of those powers. The main issue therefore is to understand how to balance freedoms and controls, and how to avoid abandoning citizens to hate rants and misinformation and to prevent platforms’ taking censorship upon themselves.

          Governance of these platforms is weak due to divisions in various legal systems between antitrust regulations those of independent authorities. Moreover, there is an inevitable plurality of levels of government authority in such matters owing to the fact that digital platforms recognize no national borders and operate transversally. It is therefore to be expected that supranational administrations, especially European, and national ones are obliged to interact and in some cases even overlap.

          With this in mind, it is the European Union’s ambition to offer the world a digital regulatory model – what is known as the “Brussels effect” – an example of which is the highly successful General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Within the scope of regulating digital platform activities, the Union has introduced a series of legal proposals that now dominate the international debate and could represent a point of reference for other legal systems, especially those of the United States and the United Kingdom.

          The European Commission is the driving force behind this regulatory process. Based on its conviction that the society that manages to weather the pandemic is going to have to be more digital and greener, i.e. capable of accessing data and algorithms to improve public services and quality of life, the Commission is hoping to adopt a European declaration of digital rights by next year. The Commission has also introduced the Digital Service Act, which, among other things, describes the principle of liability for platforms in possession of vast quantities of personal data and which, for that reason, should be subject to specific obligations. Additional proposals concerning platforms include the Digital Market Act, regarding the rules platforms must comply with in order to allow small businesses to access them and their related markets; and the artificial intelligence regulation that places constraints on the transparency of algorithms used in the collection and management of data.

          European proposals are radically changing the international digital platform regulatory framework. Thirty years ago, when the first legal problems concerning the internet arose, three theoretical alternatives to regulation became evident: that of anarchy, which saw the internet as having no need of regulation; the second was self-regulation of the internet, according to which there would be no need for government intervention because the web would regulate itself; thirdly, web regulation that would require specific laws for the internet. This third theory clashed with the impossibility of agreeing on an international web regulator.

          Thus, governments abstained for a long time from establishing specific legislation for digital platforms; left in this void, they self-regulated, which resulted in expansion of the digital sovereignty of private sources and forms of private justice exercised using the same digital instruments. Thanks to European Union intervention in the area of fundamental digital rights, it is possible that various forms of regulation will co-exist in the future and involve platforms at the level of private, international and regional organization and national government use. The principal challenge will be to create the conditions for coordinating these various legislative frameworks, especially in data collection and artificial intelligence.

          Yet, purely legal efforts will not be enough. Effective digital platform regulation is also going to involve considerable infrastructure investment in order, above all, to allow for the true digital transition of public administrations, whose databases should be rendered inter-operational at both national and European levels. It will also be essential to teach and reinforce digital skills starting at compulsory school and university levels.

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