Big Tech Faces Regulation Reckoning As 2021 Dawns

If 2020 was the year of streaming media, of content done a million different ways, of apps and Apple, and Google’s and Amazon’s algorithms … it was also the year of Big Tech regulation, where 2020 set the stage for a 2021 that could be seismic in changing the way companies — from Facebook to Apple to debt collectors — interact with consumers.

Starting with some of the most recent changes — and a sign of what’s to come — earlier in the month, the European Commission offered up its initial draft of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. The acts had been widely anticipated and give new frameworks for commerce and content.

As reported in this space, the DSA and DMA cover online marketplaces, social media and other platforms. The DSA, in particular, would create binding obligations throughout the bloc that would apply to every digital service that links consumers with merchandise, services or content such as “comprehensive protection for users’ fundamental rights online” and new processes for illicit content to be taken offline more expediently, according to the commission. The proposal also mandates more disclosure on “online advertising and on the algorithms used to recommend content to users.”

The seeming intent across the pond to reign in Big Tech’s scope also is echoed in the U.K. (which of course is Brexit-ing the EU). In recommendations issued earlier in the month  by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) — chiefly for a new watchdog group — the proposed regulatory regime is intended “harness the full potential of digital markets, driving greater competition and innovation,” according to a CMA statement. The watchdog would be known as the Digital Markets Unit.

Divestitures In The United States — And Abroad? 

Closer to home, of course, antitrust efforts and legal actions against major tech companies are ramping up (and, of course, are not confined to U.S. shores).

As has already been playing out in court, the ongoing war between Apple and Epic Games will likely head to trial. The outcome, should it come in 2021, would shape how app store and other platforms operate, and whether they promote or hinder competition and innovation in various tech marketplaces.

In one of the more sweeping events, a coalition of 38 state attorneys general filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, with allegations that the company has engaged in anticompetitive behavior. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 states launched a separate antitrust lawsuit on Facebook, accusing Facebook of “illegally maintaining its personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct,” according to the FTC.

The FTC is seeking an injunction in federal court that, as reported, could require divestitures of assets, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

In fact, it might be the case that divestitures, or at least a reconfiguration of business activities — through injunctions or other activities — could be a hallmark of this new year, and beyond, and past U.S. shores.

In China, of course, Ant Group is reportedly being told to switch focus back to payments business. The company was slated for an initial public offering, which has been shelved. Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma reportedly told regulators at a meeting: “You can take any of the platforms Ant has, as long as the country needs it.”

Beyond The Companies 

Beyond the specific operating activities of companies themselves, entire industries and activities within financial services are likely to face a broad swath of regulations — particularly in the ongoing efforts to stamp out fraud and abuse.

In the nascent and burgeoning cryptocurrency space, the U.S. Treasury Department proposed sweeping new rules that the government says would require banks and some other institutions to obtain and report the identities of parties engaging in certain digital transactions.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a prepared statement that the new proposed rule “addresses substantial national security concerns” tied to these currencies.

And, as directly impacts consumers, earlier in 2020 — but with ripple effects well beyond the horizon — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will allow debt collectors to engage with borrowers over a broader range of communications channels than before. The communications can now include email and text messages (in unlimited quantity and even across social media direct messages), according to the CFPB.