The impact of competing tech regulations in the EU, US and China

September 12, 2023 • Digital News, Ethics and Quality, Latest stories, Technology • by

A Review of Anu Bradford’s Digital Empires

Experts are questioning the Internet’s original techno-libertarian ethos. Photo by Shutterstock.

Many free speech advocates, government officials, cybersecurity experts, and even Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg agree that the Internet’s original techno-libertarian ethos is no longer sustainable. In response to technological advancements that intersect with individual human liberties and national security concerns, governments are battling to regulate valuable technology and propagate their frameworks worldwide. A multitude of crises and scandals — including the Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach, the construction of Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang, and the live-streamed Christchurch Mosque shootings — have ignited a regulatory race involving the United States (US), the European Union (EU), and China.

These three competing legal frameworks collide on the international stage as multinational technology giants attempt to navigate overlapping and often contradicting regulations. Anu Bradford, Professor of Law and International Organisation at Columbia Law School delves into the conflicting interests, cultural biases, and profound implications of these different regulatory frameworks in her latest book, Digital Empires: The Global Battle to Regulate Technology. 

Contrasting frameworks

While dominant regulatory frameworks in the US, the EU and China overlap in significant areas, Bradford proposes three overarching categories to analyse the digital landscape: market-driven, state-driven, and rights-driven. The US supports a market-driven approach, whereas the EU and China favour government interventions that aligns technology companies with their respective guidelines. The EU is constructing a rights-driven model that prioritises individual rights, while China prioritises a state-driven framework that relies heavily on surveillance and data control.

Bradford examines the rampant disinformation and privacy infringements that have captured the attention of Americans, prompting certain US lawmakers to advocate for more stringent regulation. However, she cautions against any expectation of swift regulatory action given the deeply ingrained legal commitment to free expression and speech.

The US’ fierce loyalty to these rights effectively precludes any behaviour that resembles digital censorship – although the revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency, question whether the government’s public stance aligns with its private behaviour.

Regulation vs innovation

Moreover, entrepreneurs and some technology firms argue that regulatory measures impede innovation and could cause the US to fall behind China’s rapid progress in AI and telecommunications infrastructure. The intermittent trade war between the US and China also pushes policymakers to prioritise technological and economic primacy over possible rights violations faced by American technology users.

The EU takes a different approach through what Bradford describes as a rights-driven model that safeguards a range of individual rights and aims to influence the digital rule of law beyond EU borders. Bradford, a prominent EU scholar credited with coining the term “the Brussels Effect”, expertly illustrates the far-reaching impacts of decisive EU regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation.

While the EU has not generated numerous leading technology companies like the US and China, its legal framework establishes a global benchmark. Tech giants are opting to uniformly comply with stringent EU requirements throughout their operations rather than customising policies across various jurisdictions. This underscores the significance of the Brussels effect, legitimising the EU as a major player in this arena, on par with the US and China.

China’s techno-nationalist approach to digital regulation has progressively solidified its authority over the operations of Chinese technology companies, both domestically and internationally. In pursuit of its own technological advancement, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provided substantial subsidies to companies in order to stimulate the domestic economy, establish technological prowess, and build leverage over influential Chinese firms with global ties. Bradford cites US concerns about the CCP’s alleged espionage activities through Chinese companies (e.g., Huawei) operating in foreign nations. China’s ultimate aim is to attain digital self-sufficiency and to establish its infrastructure and regulatory model abroad.

Horizontal and vertical battles

Bradford skilfully outlines the conflicts that arise between governments, which she refers to as “horizontal battles”, and the tensions between technology companies and regulating authorities, which she terms “vertical battles”. For example, while the US adheres to a market-driven regulatory approach in theory, it has initiated sanctions against Chinese firms and intensified scrutiny of Chinese companies operating within its borders.

Furthermore, the US and EU frequently clash over standards for transatlantic data sharing, and technology companies grapple with international legal obligations that demand contradictory actions or inactions. Despite the substantial intricacies of the digital regulatory landscape, Bradford adeptly dissects the relations between governments and technology firms as they attempt to navigate this evolving field.

In the final chapter of Digital Empires, Bradford offers a sombre conclusion: the US’ free-market approach is trailing its regulatory counterparts. The EU and Chinese frameworks are proliferating globally, establishing spheres of influence reminiscent of the Cold War era. She rightfully advocates for the US to partner with the EU to uphold the rights-centred, democratic regulatory model. This collaborative effort, she argues, can serve as a countermeasure against the authoritarian policies and surveillance methods that China continues to export.

Bradford issues a final warning that failing in this endeavour could expedite the decline of democracy worldwide, ushering in a new world order characterised by authoritarian regulations and untrustworthy infrastructure. Our current digital reality, as told by Bradford, calls for democratic governments and tech companies to forge a digital future that safeguards essential freedoms like free speech and the right to privacy.

Read the Digital Empires here

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO or the organisations with which they are affiliated.

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