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France Plans a Revolution to Rein in the Kings of Big Tech

 |  December 8, 2019

By Cédric O, Wired

During a joint press conference in London with President Emmanuel Macron of France this week, President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on French goods such as champagne, in retaliation for a new tax on large tech companies. As he spoke, Macron’s digital affairs minister, Cédric O, was in Washington, DC, trying to build support for even stronger actions against Google and other tech giants.

“Tech platforms have a footprint in our economies and our democracies that is a huge challenge for public power,” O said, during a visit to WIRED’s offices in San Francisco, one stop on a week-long, cross-country trip that involved meeting lawmakers, regulators, and academics to discuss antitrust tactics. O says French and European ideas about restraining tech’s power are catching on in the US—and that France’s digital services tax is just the start.

Macron signed that new levy into law in July. It takes 3 percent of digital sales from companies with more than €750 million ($829 million) in global revenue and revenues in France of over €25 million ($27 million) in categories such as online ads or ride hailing. Despite the ire it has drawn from tech companies and Trump’s US trade representative, O describes it as a kind of warmup.

“The digital tax is politically and symbolically important, but from an economic and democratic point of view, it is a really, really small part of the problem,” O says. More important? Targeting the biggest tech companies—most of which are American—with new regulations to prevent them stifling competition and damaging democracy. “We’ve designed our regulatory framework for the industrial age, and at some point it’s not relevant any more,” O says.

Unlike presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, O doesn’t want to break up tech companies. He instead quotes a slogan he says he heard this week from the man who used to be America’s top internet regulator, erstwhile Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler: “Don’t break them up, break them open.”

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