The EU Is Taking on Big Tech. It May Be Outmatched

This story originally appeared in WIRED Italia and has been translated from Italian.

The latest in a series of duels announced by the European Commission is with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Brussels suspects that the giant based in Redmond, Washington, has failed to properly moderate content produced by the generative AI systems on Bing, Copilot, and Image Creator, and that as a result, it may have violated the Digital Services Act (DSA), one of Europe’s latest digital regulations.

On May 17, the EU summit requested company documents to understand how Microsoft handled the spread of hallucinations (inaccurate or nonsensical answers produced by AI), deepfakes, and attempts to improperly influence the upcoming European Parliament elections. At the beginning of June, voters in the 27 states of the European Union will choose their representatives to the European Parliament, in a campaign over which looms the ominous shadow of technology with its potential to manipulate the outcome. The commission has given Microsoft until May 27 to respond, only days before voters go to the polls. If there is a need to correct course, it may likely be too late.

Europe’s Strategy

Over the past few months, the European Commission has started to bang its fists on the table when dealing with the big digital giants, almost all of them based in the US or China. This isn’t the first time. In 2022, the European Union hit Google with a fine of €4.1 billion because of its market dominance thanks to its Android system, marking the end of an investigation that started in 2015. In 2023, it sanctioned Meta with a fine of €1.2 billion for violating the GDPR, the EU’s data protection regulations. And in March it presented Apple with a sanction of €1.8 billion.

Recently, however, there appears to have been a change in strategy. Sanctions continue to be available as a last resort when Big Tech companies don’t bend to the wishes of Brussels, but now the European Commission is aiming to take a closer look at Big Tech, find out how it operates, and modify it as needed, before imposing fines. Take, for example, Europe’s Digital Services Act, which attempts to impose transparency in areas like algorithms and advertising, fight online harassment and disinformation, protect minors, stop user profiling, and eliminate dark patterns (design features intended to manipulate our choices on the web).

In 2023, Brussels identified 22 multinationals that, due to their size, would be the focus of its initial efforts: Google with its four major services (search, shopping, maps, and play), YouTube, Meta with Instagram and Facebook, Bing, X (formerly Twitter), Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Amazon, Booking, Wikipedia, Apple’s App Store, TikTok, Alibaba, Zalando, and the porn sites Pornhub, XVideos, and Stripchat. Since then, it has been putting the pressure on these companies to cooperate with its regulatory regime.

The day before the Bing investigation was announced, the commission also opened one into Meta to determine what the multinational is doing to protect minors on Facebook and Instagram and counter the “rabbit hole” effect—that is, the seamless flood of content that demands users’ attention, and which can be especially appealing to younger people. That same concern led it to block the launch of TikTok Lite in Europe, deeming its system for rewarding social engagement dangerous and a means of encouraging addictive behavior. It has asked X to increase its content moderation, LinkedIn to explain how its ad system works, and AliExpress to defend its refund and complaint processes.

A Mountain of Laws …

On one hand, the message appears to be that no one will escape the reach of Brussels. On the other, the European Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, has to demonstrate that the many digital laws and regulations that are in place actually produce positive results. In addition to the DSA, there is the Digital Markets Act (DMA), intended to counterbalance the dominance of Big Tech in online markets; the AI Act, Europe’s flagship legislation on artificial intelligence; and the Data Governance Act (DGA) and the Data Act, which address data protection and the use of data in the public and private sectors. Also to be added to the list are the updated cybersecurity package, NIS2 (Network and Information Security); the Digital Operational Resilience Act, focused on finance and insurance; and the digital identity package within eIDAS 2. Still in the draft stage are regulations on health data spaces and much-debated chat measures which would authorize law enforcement agencies and platforms to scan citizens’ private messages, looking for child pornography.

Brussels has deployed its heavy artillery against the digital flagships of the United States and China, and a few successful blows have landed, such as ByteDance’s suspension of the gamification feature on TikTok Lite following its release in France and Spain. But the future is uncertain and complicated. While investigations attract media interest, the EU’s digital bureaucracy is a large and complex machine to run.