Europe’s latest regulatory move could entrench the monopolies it seeks to attack.

If you live in the EU but try to follow events in the US, life has become a little more tricky over the past few months. The web home pages of several major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have been replaced with sad little notices saying that ‘Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries...’.

The reason of course is the General Data Protection Regulation, which famously came into force on 25 May. Most Gazette readers will scoff at the idea of the Times, or its billionaire philanthropist owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, being unable to get to grips with the systems needed to comply with basic data protection laws.  And of course the tech savvy among us have ways of bypassing geographical blocks on websites. But the reality is that the world has become a tiny bit darker since May 2018. The latest bit of European legislation aimed at reining in US web giants could make it darker yet. 

In plenary session yesterday, the European Parliament voted through controversial new copyright laws drawn up with the intention of making business such as Google and Facebook responsible for the gargantuan scale of copyright theft that goes on in their virtual territory. The proposals, which include making online platforms pay for lifting original news content and requiring all such platforms actively filter their content for copyright infringement, have proved massively divisive, even among 'content creators' (musicians, artists and writers to you) and have prompted some over the top outrage from the technorati.

Some of this outrage is misplaced: as usual, US commentators miss the fact that the European Parliament cannot make laws on its own. Yesterday's vote was merely on a mandate to start negotiations with member states on a new EU-wide copyright regime. The eventual legislation could end up being very different to the draft that has generated so much heat. 

Another obvious reason not to panic is that, from next April – and of course subject to whatever withdrawal agreement is or is not struck – the UK should be able to set its own copyright regime. But to do so will involve making a fundamental and difficult choice. It is pretty clear that, for all the utopian fantasies of the 1990s, the internet has for many practical purposes split into three geographical regulatory spheres of influence: China, Europe and the US. This divergence will continue. 

At the moment, the UK is very much a loyal member of the European camp. The government has bent over backwards to assure businesses and others that data will continue to flow between the UK and the EU after Brexit – note the precious parliamentary time granted to ensuring future compliance with the GDPR through the Data Protection Act. But if Europe continues to tighten the screw of regulation, the time may come to look elsewhere. Much depends on the impact of the regulation. The hope, in Brussels and Strasbourg is that, by placing the internet giants under the cosh, they will become better citizens. There is certainly something repugnant about the current ‘Nothing to to with me, guv’ attitude towards copyright and other legal infringements on their territory. 

However regulators need to be wary of two possible perverse outcomes. One is that, for all its whining, big business rather likes regulation. If the cost of setting up content filters is such that only the very largest operators can afford it, this would suit the likes of Amazon and Google very well by keeping potential competitors out. 

The other danger is that web operators, like the Los Angeles Times in the example above, start deciding the European market is not worth the candle. At the moment, it seems inconceivable that companies like Amazon will drop out of Europe, but the pace of growth in South Asia and Africa could change that perception. If that were to happen, perhaps a vibrant indigenous European web economy would grow up behind the garden wall - but the lessons of history suggest otherwise.

Sooner or later, the UK will have to choose where in cyberspace it wants to play. The debate should start now.