Tech

EU industry chief: Coronavirus crisis could be turning point for Big Tech

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PARIS — Only a few weeks ago, policymakers in Brussels, Washington, Paris and Berlin were spending a lot of energy trying to police Big Tech.

Not anymore.

The coronavirus crisis could have an unexpected consequence: A truce between Big Tech and politicians in Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Last week, Netflix, Google, Facebook and others agreed to reduce the quality of their videos to avoid internet congestion in Europe. According to Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, this could be a turning point in how big platforms behave in the future.

“Its the first time tech companies act in such a strong way. They reacted immediately, and made very important, practically spontaneous, decisions,” he told POLITICO in a phone interview. “The crisis will without doubt accelerate this [kind of behavior].”

“Content providers understood very well the situation and the role they have to play in this crisis” — European Commissioner Thierry Breton

As priorities dramatically shifted, governments scrambling to deal with the coronavirus crisis called Silicon Valley to the rescue. And powerhouses such as Google, Facebook and Netflix — most of which very much need wins with policymakers — are more than happy to lend a helping hand.

“Content providers understood very well the situation and the role they have to play in this crisis,” Breton said.

The Frenchman also addressed criticism that the companies moves sought to resolve a problem that did not exist. “Were not saying European networks are saturated. But its our role to anticipate in this unprecedented situation where one billion people all over the world are working from home and to assess whether, collectively, we can give ourselves margins for maneuver,” he said.

While airlines and hotels are asking for government bailouts, Facebook and Netflix both announced they will provide $100 million in funding to help small businesses and the creative community. Google has rolled out online tools for teachers.

Facebook, once criticized for gathering too much EU personal data, is now asked to share anonymized metadata with the Commission to help predict the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.

Domino effect

Tech companies are aware that more than their image is at stake in this crisis.

“If a large OTT [over-the-top platform] becomes responsible for the collapse of the network and people can no longer work because of that, it can create a massive controversy,” said Sébastien Soriano, the head of the French telecom regulator Arcep. “There is a willingness to be seen as good students to avoid being the straw that broke the camels back.”

Last Wednesday, Breton arranged a call with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — who was confined in his California home — to discuss options to help reduce internet congestion. During the hour-long conversation, Hastings said he would look into it and reconvene the following day.

Less than 24 hours later, the U.S. streaming giant announced it would move to reduce traffic on European networks by around 25 percent.

The EU commissioner then called Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki with a similar request. The two executives said yes.

Over the following days, Disney, Facebook, Amazon Prime Video and Amazons Twitch also said they would reduce the quality of their videos.

Amazon Prime has decreased its video quality within the EU to avoid network congestion | Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

According to Breton, this episode reflects how tech regulation should be in the future.

“We need to build a new rationale: Regulators need to work with hard law, but also with soft law, by appealing to those companies sense of responsibility to be able to act quickly,” he said, arguing that reaching out directly to CEOs ensures decisions are made and implemented quickly.

“This does not mean we wont have to set very clear rules,” Breton added.

Of course, for Silicon Valley, helping with the crisis could also backfire.

“Its a double-edge sword,” said Soriano. “By collaborating, tech companies are also showing the paramount importance they have taken in our lives, that they are a public service. Can a public service be guaranteed only by goodwill?”

French focus

In France, the enemies of yesterday have scored much-needed points with the government and the local ecosystem. Netflix and Disney, who until recently were at odds with polRead More – Source