Big Tech Companies Could Face More Rules in the EU

By Natalia Drozdiak Features Dow Jones Newswires

Tech companies in Europe face the prospect of more rules dictating how they conduct business.

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The European Union's executive body is considering rules that would prevent web platforms, such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Amazon.com Inc. or TripAdvisor Inc., from offering unfair terms to small businesses that use their services to sell or promote products.

The European Commission on Wednesday said it wants to address complaints by businesses about unilateral contract changes, lack of access to essential sales and customer data and poor transparency regarding companies' rankings in search results. Companies also lack redress possibilities to resolve disputes, the EU said.

"It's quite clear to us that the platforms are gatekeepers and in the business-to-business relationships there are a certain number of problems," said Jörgen Gren, a senior EU official involved in the initiative.

The commission said it would carry out detailed analysis to decide by year-end whether new legislation is needed. Brussels initially flagged the concerns of businesses about transparency on platforms last May.

The plan to further scrutinize web platforms' operations comes as part of the commission's midterm review of its Digital Single Market project, through which the EU aims to translate its single market in goods and services among its 28 member states into the online space. The project entails more than a dozen legislative and other initiatives, such as harmonizing the bloc's data protection rules and ensuring consumers can shop across borders online.

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The commission's deliberations highlight ongoing concerns in top European policy circles about the power of U.S. technology companies, which had sparked a flurry of investigations, including a lengthy EU antitrust probe into Google. Both Brussels and national capitals are cracking down on how tech companies operate here regarding issues such as data privacy, copyrights and taxes.

At the same time, the commission is eager to promote small businesses and entrepreneurs at a time when the bloc is still suffering from a generally weak job market. Seeking to create jobs, the commission has encouraged the growth of the so-called sharing economy--platforms like Uber Technologies Inc. that link service providers to consumers.

The EU on Wednesday said it would also in the coming months publish guidance to encourage technology firms to more quickly remove hate speech and extremist rhetoric from their platforms. The commission wants to clarify minimum requirements for takedown procedures, such as whether a form of acknowledgment of receipt by the platform is needed when a user sends a notice to take down certain content.

"It seems there is a need to clarify what this notice and action really means," said Andrus Ansip, commission vice president for the digital economy, who also said the commission had no plans to propose concrete legislation in the area but rather preferred companies to regulate themselves.

Internet companies have faced increased pressure from authorities to accelerate removal of terrorist content and hate speech after a number of deadly terror attacks in Europe in recent months.

The companies already try to remove illegal information when it is reported, but face criticism they don't do so rapidly enough or take enough of the content down. The tech firms say they are wary of initiatives that infringe on freedom of expression.

Write to Natalia Drozdiak at natalia.drozdiak@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2017 05:49 ET (09:49 GMT)