If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up. The Euro regulators go after Google/Facebook/Amazon

via Flickr © Beth Cortez-Neavel ( CC0 1.0 Universal )

via Flickr © Beth Cortez-Neavel ( CC0 1.0 Universal )

  • The knives are now well and truly out... and not before time many Europeans think
  • On top of tax attax and GDPR compliance comes direct regulatory action
  • The German regulator Bundesnetzagentur wants to register WhatsApp, Google and the like as telecoms services

Having tried and failed over many years to convince the US high tech giants that it would be in their best interests to bend the collective knee to the  European regulatory apparatus, the spurned apparatus is now fighting back by imposing regulation - putting the squeeze on the big boys around taxation, privacy concerns and ‘unfair’ retail competition.

Multi-pronged attack

The taxation saga came to the fore about two years ago with the European Commission having a crack at Apple and its Irish tax sheltering ways. (see - European Commission alleges Apple enjoyed ‘illegal state aid’ in Ireland - has to pay it back). Today we’re seeing the privacy-enhancing GDPR regulations playing out  (see - “Let us look after your data”: How telcos might benefit from GDPR).

GDPR is about clarifying privacy issues for consumers, but it’s also a concerted campaign to entrap the US companies in breach of the spirit of the European  law.

It’s alleged that the breaches are already happening as online companies test half-hearted work-arounds to get themselves through the early phase of GDPR compliance. So they end up doing what we can all see they’re doing when we come up against pop-ups asking us to ‘OK’ their privacy policies.

The questions asked (binary -  accept the policy or don’t use the site) and the degree of opacity around who and what your information is being shared with are all storing up legal trouble. Under the GDPR regulations authorities and concerned individuals or classes of individual can sue if they think the privacy policy is not explained well enough or made to look too complicated to grapple with. The concern here is that users might simply ‘OK’  the pop-ups out of GDPR fatigue.

If this is proven in court, then the Internet giants will be up in court for millions - perhaps billions - of Euros in fines as the law is designed so that companies are obliged to make their policies completely understandable - no easy feat when, as we know, the legalese involved can run go thousands of words.

Blurred lines

Now comes the latest slow-motion assault - this time from the Germans. German telecoms regulator, Bundesnetzagentur, thinks that messaging services and email should be regulated as they are for telecoms companies because the differences between OTT services and trad telco ones has now become “very blurred”, says Jochen Homann, president of Bundesnetzagentur. Consequently, it’s right that both ‘sides’ should be obeying the same set of regs, he says, regurgitating the familiar “level playing field” talking points deployed for many years by the big European telcos.

First to step up to the penalty spot is Google which is seen as the test case. If Google falls the regulator says Apple and Facebook will be next in the firing line.

Bundesnetzagentur won’t have it all its own way however. There are some powerful arguments back the other way, including the one that says that with GDPR mandating transparency it’s surely right that users can enjoy the choice of using ‘free’ messaging (say) in return for having ads shoved at them. Also, Google will point out that the Bundesnetzagentur is the only European regulator that’s looking to demand registration.

Ding ding - prepare for round One.

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