Big Tech Companies Brace for a Wave of Regulation

Big Tech Companies Brace for a Wave of Regulation

Unlike in the past, this new scrutiny could have an impact on the bottom line

Big tech companies are facing the biggest expansion in potential technology regulation in a generation. And while the jury is out on whether all that sound and fury will signify anything, for the first time there are signs that the big-tech backlash could have a substantive impact.

New laws under consideration in Europe, Asia and the U.S. could put sharp limits on how big tech companies can treat smaller competitors and restrict their use of artificial intelligence like facial recognition.

Some proposals could ban common practices such as companies giving their own products a boost in their own rankings, something that could have an operational impact, executives and analysts say.

At the same time, regulators globally are advancing dozens of investigations related to competition and privacy that could lead to more than just speeding tickets for tech giants.

Under consideration, according to regulators and executives, are orders or settlements that could cut off transatlantic data flows, kneecap some kinds of digital advertising, delay major product changes or force ongoing oversight of activities.

Tougher to cash in

To be sure, regulation so far has had little effect on Silicon Valley's bottom line or valuations. The market value of five of the world's largest tech companies is $9.31 trillion, up close to fourfold from five years ago, nearly double the growth for the S&P 500 index in that time.

But that could be changing.

The fresh wave of scrutiny has already made it more difficult for the companies to cash in on potential growth from acquisitions, says Mark Mahaney, head of internet research at Evercore Inc.'s research arm.

In November, the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority directed Meta Platforms Inc.'s Facebook to sell animated-images company Giphy, saying the acquisition would limit competition among platforms and U.K. advertisers.

Facebook says the deal benefits consumers, and it has appealed.

Tech companies are making other changes, too. Facebook announced in November that it would shut down its facial-recognition system in part because of potential regulations.

"There's definitely a sense of there being a new momentum for regulation,'' says Sinead McSweeney, Twitter Inc.'s global vice president for public policy, noting that in recent weeks the company has had to implement new legislative requirements in at least six countries. "It's on a whole new level."

Alphabet Inc.'s Google, for instance, has agreed to work closely with the Competition and Markets Authority on its plan to remove cookies, which track online activity, from its Chrome browser.

Now Google executives are looking at how to build new appeals processes for content removals on the YouTube video service, and reworking how it handles user and partner information internally, says Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs.

"There's an awful lot on the table right now," Mr. Walker says. "It's a challenging exercise because, in many cases, the compliance times are short, and we actually have to start to prepare now for rules before the ink is dried."

While tech companies say they agree that their industry needs new regulation, they are pushing back against some specific proposals -- in part because of the impact they might have.

Some tech executives, such as Twitter's Ms. McSweeney, say they worry requirements in proposed online-content rules could encourage companies to remove content they merely disagree with, chilling free speech.

Google's Mr. Walker says he is concerned that the definition of an online marketplace in one bill could force the company to notify websites each time their ranking changed in the search engine, a virtually impossible task.

What's the effect?

For their part, advocates for more regulation worry that the big tech companies could emerge unscathed from the newest wave of regulation.

Gabriel Weinberg, founder and chief executive of DuckDuckGo, maker of a privacy-centric search engine, says that three EU antitrust decisions against Google, and more than $9 billion in fines, have done little to pare the search leader's market position. (Google says that its compliance with the EU decisions has led to significant changes in its operations that have helped competitors.)

Now Mr. Weinberg is concerned that policy makers are placing more emphasis on passing laws than on making sure regulators have the know-how and tools to properly implement new requirements to, say, treat rivals equitably.

"I think something will get passed. I'm pretty hopeful it will," he says. "But it looks like the devil's in the details of actually moving the market."

Policymakers say they are confident they can make it work. Cédric O, junior minister for digital affairs for France, which holds the presidency of the EU's council of member states for the first half of this year, says he's confident that the EU can pass effective laws and must seize the momentum.

He also says he's going to the U.S. to lobby for transatlantic rules to protect children who use social media, following articles in The Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files series that found that Instagram made some teenage girls feel worse about themselves.

"I think there's a European and probably international consensus that Big Tech has an impact on the economy and on democracy and should be regulated," Mr. O says. "There's a desire to act that's shared everywhere."

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