European policymakers reached a deal early Saturday in Brussels on a sweeping new law to force the world’s largest tech companies to more aggressively police their platforms for illegal content, paving the way for one of the most expansive regulations to date to address a broad range of harms caused by social networks, shopping websites, and search engines.
The legislation, called the Digital Services Act, would impose new transparency obligations on the companies, forcing them to provide information to regulators and outside researchers about how algorithms that control what people see on their sites work. It also creates new regulations around how companies target online ads.
The agreement solidifies a two-bill plan, which also includes the Digital Markets Act, a competition bill that would establish new rules to prevent “gatekeepers” from abusing their power to squash smaller rivals. Both bills await votes from the Parliament and policymakers from the 27 countries in the union, which are widely viewed as a formality.
“The Digital Services Act will make sure that what is illegal offline is also seen & dealt with as illegal online — not as a slogan, as reality! And always protecting freedom of expression!” tweeted Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s top digital enforcer.
The agreement followed 16 hours of negotiations that stretched into the early morning in Brussels. The world is closing the gap with Europe on digital rules, the E.U. competition chief says. Washington lawmakers have failed to pass comprehensive tech legislation despite years of promises of a crackdown on the industry as Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon amassed power and influence for decades with minimal regulation.
That’s not been the case in the European Union, whose laws now are expected to influence the regulatory debate in the United States. Europe passed its first landmark privacy law half a decade ago.
Despite the lack of action, there has been bipartisan support building around antitrust regulation, particularly a bill to prevent tech companies from giving their own products and services advantages on their platforms over smaller rivals. Lawmakers have also introduced bipartisan bills to address children’s safety and force greater transparency of tech companies’ algorithms.
“This will basically set the gold standard for regulating online platforms for any regulator in the world,” said Mathias Vermeulen, a co-founder and policy director at the data rights agency AWO, who worked on the legislation.