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Tech, media and telecoms

Back to school in Brussels – where next for digital policy?

By
Author
 
First name
Max
 
von Thun
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As the long summer days start drawing to a close and Brussels gradually awakens from recess, attention is shifting towards the EU’s policy agenda for the autumn. While digital policy has been a cornerstone of the current Commission’s legislative agenda so far, there is a sense that tech is set for a downgrade as other challenges – above all the war in Ukraine, inflation and the energy crisis – take centre stage. Moreover, recent political agreements on landmark files including the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA) have left the Commission with less on its plate. Yet while the so-called ‘digital transition’ is set to have a slightly lower profile in the coming months, there remains more than enough to keep both policymakers and lobbyists busy.

To start with, despite the aforementioned agreements on key files, complex negotiations continue on a whole host of legislative proposals. These include the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Regulation, the first attempt globally to set horizontal rules governing the use of AI and define so-called ‘high-risk’ AI, the Platform Work Directive, which seeks to improve working conditions and stamp out bogus self-employment in the gig economy, and new rules governing the use of political advertising across Europe. Each of these files is highly contentious, with big gaps remaining between negotiators in the Parliament and Council that will require serious effort to resolve.

Then there are major proposals for which the legislative process has yet to begin in earnest, most notably the European Chips Act – the Commission’s blueprint for achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ in semiconductor design and production – and the Data Act, which puts forward measures designed to unlock the value of non-personal data. As if that wasn’t enough to think about, the Commission has committed to publishing further proposals in the months to come with significant implications for the tech sector, from a “Connectivity Infrastructure Act” expected to establish obligations for tech companies to fund network infrastructure, to a new legislative proposal on the ‘right to repair’ which will impose new requirements on hardware manufacturers. The former proposal is set to be particular incendiary, with the mere idea of tech-funded infrastructure already generating fierce pushback from industry groups who claim it will undermine net neutrality.

The legislative agenda summarised above will undoubtedly keep lobbyists and the co-legislators in the European Parliament and Council occupied over the coming months. But when it comes to digital, the Commission’s own in-tray is far from empty. In addition to getting out the remaining legislative proposals it has committed to, the Commission must now turn to the complicated task of implementing and enforcing newly passed laws, in particular the DMA and DSA. These two files, which seek respectively to regulate the market power of large ‘gatekeeper’ firms and keep users safe online, will demand an administrative apparatus of a scale yet to be seen within the Commission (when it comes to digital regulation at least). Before the dust had even settled on the political agreements recently reached on the two files, concerns were already being raised about the Commission’s enforcement capacity, concerns that will now be put to the test as the EU’s executive arm begins laying the groundwork for implementation.

The preceding discussion is based on the existing - one might say static - digital policy agenda in Brussels. Yet policymaking these days is anything but static, and one can quite easily envision a whole range of unforeseen events that would disrupt the status quo and necessitate a policy response from the EU. Such events could stem from current geopolitical instability, such as a surge in Russian disinformation related to the Ukraine war or further supply chain disruption triggered by tensions in the Taiwan Strait, to scandals and mishaps involving emerging technologies – such as AI or the metaverse – that lead to calls for a regulatory response.

In short, while digital policy may take a momentary backseat in light of geopolitical and economic instability, it will remain a fundamental plank of the Commission’s – and the EU’s as a whole – work programme for the foreseeable future.

    The views expressed in this research can be attributed to the named author(s) only.