How the EU forced tech companies to change in 2023

    This year, tech companies have made concessions that would have once been unthinkable. Apple agreed to adopt the RCS protocol, allowing for text message interoperability with Android devices, and, after more than a decade it ditched the lightning port in its latest iPhone. Meta offered some users the choice to opt out of targeted advertising for a monthly subscription. TikTok, Meta, and Snap allowed some users to opt out of their recommendation algorithms entirely.

    None of these concessions would have happened without pressure from the European Union. The bloc has long taken the lead in regulating “Big Tech” (or attempting to), but 2023 saw some of those efforts finally come to fruition.

    The most immediate result of increased EU regulations this year came with the arrival of the iPhone 15 lineup, which was the first phone from Apple to support USB-C rather than its proprietary lightning port. The company may have eventually made the switch on its own, but it came in 2023 as a direct result of a European law that made USB-C the common charging standard.

    “We have no choice as we do around the world but to comply to local laws,” Apple exec Greg Joswiak said about the rules last year. (The regulation requires all new phones and other mobile devices to adopt USB-C by the end of 2024.)

    Likewise, it’s widely believed Apple’s decision to finally agree to support the RCS standard in iMessage was the result of political will within the EU. Apple had long been resistant to supporting RCS, which would finally modernize text messages between iPhone owners and their “green bubble” friends.

    Apple hasn’t publicly said why it changed its stance. But Google and other companies were pressuring EU authorities to regulate iMessage like other “gatekeeper” services that fall under its authority thanks to the Digital Markets Act (DMA). Apple’s surprise announcement that it would support RCS after all came on the same day as the deadline for companies to challenge the EU’s gatekeeper rules. So Apple’s about face on RCS could reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to pacify EU regulators who could have taken more aggressive measures, like requiring iMessage to be fully interoperable with other chat apps like WhatsApp.

    Notably, both of these changes will also benefit US users, even though they are a consequence of EU-specific regulations.“There’s definitely a higher degree of protection to the consumer in Europe than there is in the US,” Carolina Milanesi, a consumer analyst with Creative Strategies, told Engadget. Those protections, she noted, often “cascade down” to other regions because it can be impractical to implement different standards across geographies.

    In addition to the gains made under the DMA, most of the major social media apps — including Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram — fall under the purview of another EU law that went into effect this year, the Digital Services Act. Under this law, these companies are required to make detailed disclosures about disinformation and other harmful content, and explain how their recommendation algorithms work.

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

    Whether these measures will actually make these services better for those using them, however, is less clear. There are still open questions about how the rules will be enforced. But there have been a few notable changes for EU-based social media users.

    Snapchat, Meta and TikTok all now allow European users to opt out of their recommendation algorithms entirely. Snapchat also ended most targeted advertising for 13- to 17-year-olds in the bloc. Additionally, Meta was forced to allow EU users to opt-out of targeted advertising or choose no advertising at all (in exchange for a hefty monthly subscription.)

    While these may not seem like monumental changes, they do strike at the heart of all of these companies’ business models. And it’s unlikely, if left to self-regulate as US policymakers have been content to allow them to do, that any of these companies would have voluntarily acted against their own self-interest.

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