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By MARK SCOTT

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WAIT, ISN’T IT WEDNESDAY? Digital Bridge is coming to you a day early this week. Normal transmissions resume on June 2. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent, and if you ever worry that the robots are slowly taking over the world, I bring you concrete evidence to the contrary.

Ready? Let’s do this:

— Whisper it quietly: The world is falling out of love with Europe’s privacy rules.

— What to look out for ahead of the next transatlantic trade and tech meeting in the U.S.

Newbie antitrust regulators have a lot to prove. Not all will be successful.

UNHAPPY BIRTHDAY FOR EUROPE’S PRIVACY PUSH

WHEN THE EUROPEAN UNION updated its data protection rules four years ago today, there was talk about a step-change in how people’s privacy would be protected. The standard, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, would become the de facto global norm. It would force the likes of Facebook and Google to stop data-hungry practices that critics hated. It would be a precursor to a global revolution where individuals, not companies, would have greater control of their information.

Yet that narrative is increasingly looking overcooked. Four United States policymakers and officials involved in Washington’s ongoing dance with potential federal privacy standards told me Europe was increasingly not seen as the gold standard in how to better protect people’s rights online. It’s not that the bloc’s rules don’t look good on paper. They most certainly do. But the last four years, according to these American privacy experts, have laid bare that the EU’s data protection rules were mostly a paper tiger.

The theory goes something like this. A lack of Continent-wide enforcement — a major bone of contention for many — of the bloc’s privacy standards, coupled with an overly prescriptive rulebook allowing bigger companies to sidestep their competitors through pure legal resources, has undermined Europe’s efforts to create gold-plated rules that would be the envy of the world. “GDPR just doesn’t work,” one of the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking in Washington, told me.

This take — which is also gaining ground across South America and the Asia Pacific region — is a big deal. If Europe can’t convince others to follow its privacy playbook, including via separate, not interconnected, free-trade agreements, then it opens up the possibility for alternative (international) data protection standards that many, especially in Washington, have long called for. You just have to look at the U.S.-led push to take the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s privacy standards global as how this is shaking out.

In Washington, we’re still years away from federal privacy standards, with June being the latest timeframe get rules passed ahead of the November midterm elections. The two major outstanding issues — so-called pre-empting existing state-based data protection standards and allowing people to directly sue companies for potential wrongdoing — are gradually being whittled down. The goal, I’m told, is to allow a potential nationwide law to override some, but not all, of the state-backed privacy rules, while allowing individuals to file lawsuits only in certain specific instances (to avoid mass litigation).

What is increasingly off the table (if it ever was close to being considered) is a European-style comprehensive privacy law. “Show me how it has been effective in protecting people’s privacy,” said another of the U.S. officials. “I think it’s fair to say it gets a D, at best, for how things have gone since 2018.” I would argue such a grade is a little harsh. But it’s true that, for many, Europe’s data protection rules have not lived up to the fanfare that proceeded them on May 25, 2018.

That leaves Europe fighting a war on two fronts. Even as Brussels extends its reach via the likes of the political agreement for the new EU-U.S. data transfer deal, the bloc is struggling to convince other countries to sign up to similar privacy rules. That’s mostly because almost all of the rest of the world doesn’t have the regulatory capacity to meet those standards. Europe also is struggling to convince its own citizens that, after four years of the new system, people’s rights are being better upheld now than before.

DIGITAL INFRASTRUCTURE, STANDARDS AND CONTENT

NOW THAT ATTENTION HAS DRIFTED away from the EU-U.S. Trade and Tech Council’s recent meeting in Paris, it’s understandable that many won’t think about this transatlantic get-together until the next time Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission executive vice president, and Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, gather in the U.S., most likely in December. But over the next six months, 10 working groups — on everything from data governance to export controls — will continue to meet. Here are the likely priorities:

1. Export controls: Five officials involved in these discussions suggested the Trade and Tech Council made sanctioning Russia a whole lot easier. The goal now is double down on those personal ties to present a united front on the global trading stage. “When it comes to export controls, I think all of us are keenly aware of the challenges of our current (trade) architecture that has Russia participating in it,” Tarun Chhabra, senior director for technology and national security at the White House’s National Security Council, told me. “What could a new and emerging architecture look like?”

2. Standards: Yes, I can already hear you yawn with a lack of excitement. But even as the EU can’t make up its mind on how hard to go against China — which has been eager to dominate wonky global talks on digital and trading standards to favor its own cause — there’s a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that a more unified approach to these multilateral international bodies is in everyone’s interests. One to watch: how the U.S. and EU work together during the upcoming vote on the International Telecommunication Union’s new secretary-general (which pits an American against a Russian).

We’re going, both from a defensive and offensive perspective, [to] look [at] where things are troublesome that are coming up, so we can give ourselves early warnings to be better prepared to react. We can, on our side, coordinate with our member states and with industry,” Alejandro Cainzos, a member of Vestager’s cabinet in charge of transatlantic relations, told me. “Also, offensively, we want to take a proactive interest in collaboration, looking at the issues we’ve had in the past in some of these (international) bodies and how some of them have been flooded in order to tilt standards in directions that we wouldn’t like.”

3. Funding: One of the outcomes of the recent meeting was a pledge to combine EU, U.S. and international development financing to help middle-income countries choose Western alternatives to Chinese telecommunications and digital infrastructure. The goal is to offer an alternative to Chinese state-backed loans, so that just as Beijing-linked telecom equipment-makers have been pushed out of Europe, the same thing can happen globally. Expect to see at least a couple of these funding projects to be announced by the end of the year.

4. Platforms: The White House knows it can’t — and doesn’t want to — copy the Berlaymont’s Digital Services Act, or recently approved online content rules. But where there is growing alignment is in efforts to copy certain elements of the European approach, particularly when it comes to providing an independent way for researchers to gain access to social media data and voluntary efforts by the companies to conduct risk assessments over where their networks could face stress.

Already, there have been joint discussions about how to extend these provisions within the EU’s content playbook across the Atlantic, according to four people involved in those meetings. It’s at an early stage. But the hope, at least based on two of those officials, is to potentially create an EU-U.S. mechanism for data access so that American researchers can benefit in similar ways as their European counterparts are likely to from early 2023. Watch this space.

BY THE NUMBERS

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COMPETITION CHANGING OF THE GUARD

IN FRANCE, YOU HAVE Benoît Cœuré. In the U.S., you have Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter. In Australia, you have Gina Cass-Gottlieb. In the United Kingdom, you will have someone new running that country’s competition agency by July. In arguably some of the most important (Western) regimes for digital antitrust — excluding the European Commission — the last 12 month has seen scores of new names taking over agencies that will play important roles in the next generation of cases aimed at Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. (Shout out to Andreas Mundt, head of the German federal cartel office, now in his 13th year in that position.)

So far, it’s a mixed bag in how these new enforcers are approaching their jobs. Questions swirl about whether Cœuré in France and Cass-Gottlieb in Australia are willing to swing for the fences in terms of which cases they will take on. In London, there’s growing doubt that whoever takes over the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority will be given the necessary legal backing to fulfill the country’s pledge to go hard against Big Tech. For all their talk, and track record, of being Silicon Valley’s worst nightmare, the U.S.’s Khan and Kanter still need to prove they can translate their campaigning backgrounds into what it takes to win antitrust cases in front of traditionally skeptical U.S. judges.

THE FACE OF EXTREMISM IN 2022

THE RECENT BUFFALO SHOOTING — which involved an 18-year-old white supremacist gunning down 10 Black shoppers in upstate New York — is a reminder that the divisions between offline and online extremism are quickly eroding. It also signals that domestic terrorism, be it in Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere across the West, is arguably a bigger threat now compared with jihadist attacks. To figure this all out, I talked to Nicholas Rasmussen (before the Buffalo shooting), who is the executive director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a group backed by a coalition of tech companies whose aim is to share best practices to clamp down on such hate online.

His testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security is worth a read.

On how extremist behavior has evolved: “Mainstream platforms have more capacity to apply scrutiny to what is posted online, and the extremist community is aware of that. They are adapting, they are agile. They know how to frame things so that they don’t bump up against the companies’ red lines. There’s also a natural movement toward platforms that are less moderated.”

On the role of COVID-19: “With COVID, these communities use the pandemic and countries’ health policy to cement their own worldview. COVID was a weaponizing agent to cement these communities in an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. It created an ‘otherness’ that was about how someone else was trying to keep them down.”

On how companies have responded: “It’s been an uneven environment. Some companies have more resources than others to tackle the problem. One thing I’ve come to understand, though, is that aggressive moderation is good, until it isn’t. The balance on free speech is something we need to take seriously.”

On the shift from jihadists to domestic extremists: “The preponderance of concern has shifted to domestic from ISIS, which is less significant than it was five years ago. Law enforcement will struggle when tackling troubling content that overlaps with the real world. Unless it breaks existing rules, it may be out of their remit.”

WONK OF THE WEEK

DIGITAL BRIDGE STILL REMAINS a Musk/Twitter-free zone. But that doesn’t mean the social media platform isn’t worth focusing on, now and again. So this week, we’re flagging Yoel Roth, Twitter’s global head of safety and integrity, who looks after the company’s rules on platform manipulation, as well as investigations into possible state-backed covert activity.

By Twitter’s standards, Roth is a lifer. He joined the social network back in 2015 after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on privacy and self-expression on LGBTQ+ social networks like Grindr. He also spent some time at Harvard University working on quantifying hate speech.

“Our approach to mitigating the effects of harmful misinformation continues to move beyond the leave-up/take-down binary of moderation,” he wrote on Twitter on May 19. “We’ve seen that not amplifying harmful content can reduce its spread by 30-50 percent. We’ll continue to invest in these interventions going forward.”

THEY SAID WHAT, NOW?

It would be a great irony if Europe is the first place in the world where we see an attack on encryption,Jane Horvath, Apple’s chief privacy officer told an audience in Brussels this week — soon after the European Commission’s proposed new rules that would require companies to create backdoors to messaging services in the name of child safety. “Backdoors aren’t partisan.”

WHAT I’M READING

People’s data is being collected on an industrial scale, often without their understanding, in ways that bridge both the online and offline worlds, according to a report by the Finnish Innovation Fund (disclaimer: I participated in the project underpinning the research).

— The Council of Europe published recommendations on how countries should tackle the rise of hate speech online. Take a look here.

— When it comes to promoting a global digital policy agenda, the Biden administration and other parts of the U.S. government need to better fund existing work and promote a domestic agenda that keeps pace with international partners, claims Cameron Kerry for The Brookings Institution.

— Online sexual abuse imagery of children continues to spread, with the Internet Watch Foundation finding 64 percent more criminal material in 2021 compared with the previous year. Read the group’s report here.

— Europe’s latest legislative push includes the Data Act, or proposals to put limits on how nonpersonalized data from within the 27-country bloc can be transferred internationally. Kenneth Propp breaks down what you need to know for About Intel.

— Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, did not protect Facebook users from how their data was misused during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, based on a lawsuit filed by Washington, D.C.’s attorney general.

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