Authorities can disagree over regulation, but they cannot ignore their own rules, says Richard Allan
The project of European integration that began in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome, like the world wide web that began in 1989 as a glint in a particle physicist’s eye, was founded on a powerful principle: tear down the barriers that keep people apart and you make life more fruitful. Some EU authorities seem to have forgotten that maxim. By making it harder to start and run an internet business, they threaten to make Europe less prosperous and the web less useful. Facebook’s recent experience in Europe tells a disturbing tale.
When we established our European headquarters in Ireland five years ago, we underwent months of demanding, technical audits by the data protection authorities there, who are charged with enforcing EU data protection law.
Initially, when the authorities in other countries had concerns about our services, they worked with the Irish regulator to resolve them. This is how European regulation is supposed to work: if a business meets regulations implemented in its home country, it can operate across the EU.
Lately, however, cracks have begun appearing in this common regulatory framework. National regulators in a number of countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands, appear to be initiating multiple, overlapping investigations of Facebook, revisiting basic questions about how our services work.
In effect, this would mark a return to national regulation. If it is allowed to stand, complying with EU law will no longer be enough; businesses will instead have to comply with 28 independently shifting national variants. They would have to predict the enforcement agenda in each country.
It was precisely in order to avoid placing European companies in this predicament that the common market was created. If a car made in France or Germany had to meet separate technical requirements in Poland or Spain, Europe’s car manufacturers would face serious handicaps. BMW, Jaguar and Renault might not be the international success stories that they are. Consumers would not be as well served; the cost of selling in a new market would increase and some companies would not bother. Common rules have given Europe’s workers prosperity and its consumers choice.
If a French or German car had to meet separate requirements in Poland or Spain, Europe’s car makers would face serious handicaps
For internet companies, too, national regulation would pose serious obstacles. Facebook’s costs would increase, and people in Europe would notice new features arriving more slowly, or not at all. The biggest victims would be smaller European companies. The next big thing might never see the light of day. We know from experience that getting a company off the ground is hard enough already. And if regulation at the national level is adopted, it could stop start-ups before they even really get started. At a time when Europe is looking to create jobs and grow its economy, the results could be disastrous.
It is disappointing that a group of public institutions in the EU, which derive their authority in large part from EU law, would take actions that so undermine the EU model — not to mention potentially damaging the development of Europe’s economy.
National authorities are entitled to their differences over how Facebook and other internet companies should be regulated. But ignoring the rules Europe has so painstakingly crafted, and arrogating the authority that those rules accord to the Irish regulators, is not the answer. The simplest way to resolve their differences is for national regulators to work together, as they have done effectively in the past. That is surely a better approach than to fragment Europe’s single market, and waste resources mounting independent investigations into issues that have already been thoroughly examined.
The writer is Facebook’s vice-president of public policy in Europe
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