[WATCH] ‘These are the new public utilities of our time’: Labour MEP on regulating tech giants like Facebook, Google

Alex Agius Saliba says representing 27 member states meant European negotiators could leverage their weight to regulate the digital ecosystem

Big tech giants like Facebook and Google are the new public utilities of our time, but Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba and German Greens MEP Alexandra Geese insist that these companies can be regulated in the public interest.

Speaking with journalists, Agius Saliba recalled that lobbyists, especially from big tech companies, would always tell MEPs that regulating these companies and their ecosystem is a highly difficult feat.

“From our experience working on the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, we proved that as legislators, with the benefit of regulating the internal market and representing the 27 member states, ultimately we can leverage our weight to regulate the ecosystem,” he said.

“These are the new public utilities of our time, when we’re speaking of Facebook, Google, Amazon. The leverage they have on our fundamental human rights, the way we think, on how we’re making commercial choices, buying our products, seeing advertisements.”

Geese added that the EU’s intention was not to censor any legal content uploaded online. “We just want to know what you’re doing,” she said of large internet platforms.

“These companies know all about us. They collect enormous amounts of data, huge data profiles about every one of us. They can manipulate societies, and external actors have ued these mechanisms to bring about Brexit, influence the 2016 elections.”

“They say that it’s private property what we do with our algorithms, it’s trade secrets. We’re proving them wrong. The way your algorithms function poses a risk for fundamental rights, democracy, protection of minors, rights against women.”

On platform work, Agius Saliba noted that a number of problems that were always present before the pandemic became much more visible. This is most especially the case for platform workers, smart workers, teleworkers and flexiworkers.

“A lot of abuses are being carried out on a daily basis with regards to these workers. Many times, the relationship between the platform – Bolt, Wolt, other companies operating these apps that we use on a daily basis, are many times seen as direct employers, and not just an app with the worker being regarded as self-employed. We have this uncertainty on the relationship between the self-employed worker and the app or digital service provider running the whole system.”

He added that the algorithms used by these applications are not transparent enough. “How are these apps calculating how much the driver is going to get, or who’s going to get what type of work. We need a lot of transparency in this regard.”

Geese added that platform workers also tend to be the most vulnerable workers. “They are often migrants, women on very low income, they don’t speak the language of the country they live in very well. They have less of a possibility to organise themselves and fight for their rights.”

Meanwhile on the right to disconnect, Agius Saliba clarified that the aim is not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to the legislation.

“It’s easier to regulate the right to disconnect the right to disconnect for an office worker with traditional working hours than to regulate it for a doctor, nurse, journalist. This level of flexibility will be there, but the minimum thresholds, safeguards, basic rights for every worker has to be respected.

Geese added that the less agency one has over their personal and professional life, the more that person has to be protected at law. “It’s important that this legislation contains some degree of flexibility.”

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