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Oct. 15, 2021, 7:27 a.m. EDT

New bills aim at Apple, Google and Facebook as U.S. attempts to catch up to Europe’s Big Tech push

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By Jon Swartz

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“How do you adhere to rules that don’t exist?” Jeff Joseph, chief executive of the Software & Information Industry Association, whose 450 members include Facebook and Google, told MarketWatch.

“The EU has moved more practically and more aggressively” on tech regulation, Joseph said. “This patchwork of (U.S.) state laws make it complex to companies and consumers to navigate. They need guidance.”

Fresh off an injurious whistleblower hearing in the Senate last week, Facebook blamed criticism of its treatment of kids online on a lack of “standard rules for the internet” and said that the onus should be on Congress to act.

“It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated,” Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, said in a statement.

Read: As Facebook faces fire, U.S. laws protecting kids online languish without an update

Even lawmakers admit to frustration. At various times during the testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Sens. Markey and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., noted futile attempts over the years to push through significant updates to COPPA with no success.

” (T)he absence of regulation leads to harming teens, stoking division, and damaging our democracy — exactly what the witness [Haugen] said here today,” Markey said.

Markey was not available for an interview as Congress attempts to hammer out a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. But behind the scenes, the frustrated senator fired off a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg this month, demanding a “detailed review of the steps you are currently taking and plan to take to stop Facebook from allowing teen users to be targeted with inappropriate and dangerous content.”

The tone of the letter mirrored a confrontation between Markey and Zuckerberg during a 2018 Senate hearing, when the senator pressed the CEO on whether Facebook would support a law for users, particularly kids, that requires “clear permission from users before selling or sharing sensitive information about your health, your finances, your relationships?” (Zuckerberg said Facebook supported the “general principle” and did not sell sensitive information.)

Yet three years later, no progress has been made.

The culprit? At the whistleblower hearing, Sens. Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., blamed — surprise! — Big Tech for its lobbying efforts to quash legislation or severely water it down.

Recent calls and emails to Silicon Valley’s congressional delegation about Big Tech went unanswered, reflecting the difficult position they are in representing their most-powerful industry. But the Facebook whistleblower hearing broke the silence of at least one member.

“The Energy and Commerce Committee must subpoena all documents from Facebook related to Ms. Haugen’s testimony and her SEC whistleblower complaints, particularly those related to the mental health of children, Covid-19, election misinformation, algorithmic amplification, and targeted advertising,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose district includes Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, said in a statement Oct. 7.

Eshoo’s office had no further comment when contacted by MarketWatch.

Opinion: Regulating Big Tech will be hard, and California is proving it

A continent away, the 27-member EU bloc, whose overall philosophy mirrors a cultural predilection to guard personal information and demand to know how that data is used, shows no signs of letting up its relentless crackdown on Big Tech. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is also drawing up plans on how to regulate artificial intelligence.

An EU representative said the organization is simply regulating platforms to address the impact of platforms on society and competition. A December 2019 survey revealed 74% of European citizens  wished to know how their data is used by social media platforms when they access other websites .

And major corporations are hewing to the European standard. For companies with vast global operations like Xerox Holdings Corp. /zigman2/quotes/201169674/composite XRX -3.26% , GDPR is always top of mind, Xerox Chief Technology Officer Naresh Shanker told MarketWatch.

“Data privacy policies and protections are front and center,” he said. “And they are accelerating in compliance [with GDPR].”

GDPR , a series of regulations to give consumers control of their personal data collected by companies, has led to at least one mega-fine. Authorities in Luxembourg hit Amazon with a record $888 million penalty in July — a charge Amazon disputes. Last year, France’s top administrative court upheld a $56 million fine against Google.

While well-intentioned and somewhat effective, tech regulation laws in Europe could be even stronger, says Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee, author of “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.”

“One hopes the next wave — which includes country-specific laws — will be more effective,” McNamee told MarketWatch.

For now, however, what is happening in Europe is but a pipe dream for American lawmakers and the industry they are targeting.

“There is a desire on both sides to get something done, and there is a will to create constructive, not punitive, laws,” SIIA CEO Joseph said. “We see some forward movement — using the D.C. line — soon.”

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