How in 2023 the EU compelled IT businesses to adapt

There is still much to be done.

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Tech corporations have given in this year that was previously unimaginable. After more than a decade, Apple decided to forgo the lightning connector in its most recent iPhone and agreed to embrace the RCS protocol, which enables text message compatibility with Android smartphones. For a monthly fee, Meta gave certain customers the option to refuse targeted advertising. Some users of TikTok, Meta, and Snap have the option to completely disable their recommendation systems.

Without the EU’s insistence, none of these compromises would have been made. The EU has long been at the forefront of regulating “Big Tech”—or trying to—but some of those initiatives achieved some success in 2023.

This year’s more stringent EU laws were most directly felt with the release of the iPhone 15 series, which became the company’s first phone to enable USB-C instead of its exclusive lightning connector. Even though the corporation finally made the change on its own, it did so in 2023 as a direct result of a European regulation that established USB-C as the industry standard for charging devices.

According to Apple executive Greg Joswiak, “we have no choice as we do around the world but to comply to local laws” about the regulations last year. (The rule mandates that by the end of 2024, all new phones and other mobile devices must support USB-C.)

Similarly, it is generally accepted that political will inside the EU was the driving force behind Apple’s decision to ultimately consent to implement the RCS standard in iMessage. RCS, which would have finally modernized text messaging between iPhone users and their pals in the “green bubble,” has long been opposed by Apple.

Apple has not made its reasoning for the shift in policy public. However, Google and other businesses were putting pressure on EU regulators to regulate iMessage in the same way that they regulate other “gatekeeper” services that are under their purview because of the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The day Apple unexpectedly revealed that it would embrace RCS after all coincided with the deadline for businesses to contest the EU’s gatekeeper regulations. Therefore, it is reasonable to understand Apple’s reversal on RCS as an effort to appease EU authorities who may have taken more drastic steps, such as mandating that iMessage be completely compatible with competing chat applications like WhatsApp.

Notably, while being the result of EU-specific rules, both of these adjustments will also benefit users in the US. According to Carolina Milanesi, a consumer analyst at Creative Strategies, “European consumers are more protected than those in the United States,” Engadget said. She pointed out that because it might be difficult to apply various standards across geographies, those safeguards frequently “cascade down” to other areas.

Apart from the advancements brought about by the DMA, the majority of the prominent social media applications, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter, are governed by the Digital Services Act, an additional EU legislation that came into force this year. These businesses must comply with this rule by providing thorough disclosures concerning misinformation and other harmful content, as well as an explanation of how their recommendation algorithms operate.

Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, says that “the social media industry will have an incentive to not misbehave and/or incentive to self-regulate more vigorously if you force it to explain itself, to reveal to some degree its inner workings.”

It’s less obvious, though, if these actions would genuinely improve these services for users. Regarding how the regulations will be applied, there are still unanswered concerns. However, there have been a few noteworthy modifications for social media users in the EU.

European users may now completely opt out of recommendation algorithms on Snapchat, Meta, and TikTok. Snapchat also discontinued the majority of the bloc’s 13- to 17-year-old targeted advertising. Furthermore, Meta was compelled to provide EU users the option to reject targeted advertising or to turn off all advertising (in return for a costly monthly payment.)

These might not appear to be significant adjustments, but they do go against the core of the business strategies of all of these organizations. And it’s improbable that any of these businesses would have willingly behaved against their self-interest if allowed to self-regulate, as US lawmakers have been happy to let them do.

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