Thursday, April 21, 2022

Transatlantic Seminar Series Concludes with Panel on Big Tech

View of Sterling Law Building from Courtyard

The final session of the Transatlantic Seminar Series on Consumer Law, Technology, and Inequality, brought together distinguished panelists to share insights on the role of large and dominant companies in the IT industry (“Big Tech”) for consumers, consumer protection law, and inequality.

At the April 20 event, Margrethe Vestager (Executive Vice President of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age), Professor Fiona Scott Morton (Yale School of Management), Professor Giorgio Monti (Tilburg University, Law), and Sarah Miller (Executive Director and Founder of the American Economic Liberties Project) discussed the impact of Big Tech companies on consumer wellbeing and socio-economic justice. The conversation also revisited some of the issues discussed in previous sessions, which covered topics including privacy and inequality, consumer financial services, and digital economy and inequality.

Moderated by Przemysław Pałka (Jagellonian University Cracow, Law), the four panelists began by offering reflections on the risks of Big Tech’s business models. All panelists stressed that the potential for harm on consumers and businesses is compounded when Big Tech companies serve as both gatekeepers and platforms for the exchange of goods and services as these companies also design and control user interfaces.

The discussion then examined different legal frameworks aiming to regulate Big Tech, contrasting the often starkly diverging approaches on both sides of the Atlantic. Monti notably pointed out the different orientations of antitrust law in the European Union and United States, designed to protect competition, respectively to primarily prevent consumer harm. While Miller advocated for a more robust approach to regulated competition in the United States, Scott Morton stressed that the enforcement of antitrust mechanisms began much later than in U.S. than in the E.U., making a direct comparison difficult. Vestager and Monti identified the E.U.’s recently passed Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act as thoroughly transformative regulating legislation. They described these pieces of legislation as a move in the right direction, even though consumers might face higher costs for transition and information in the short term.  

The panel further discussed the question of one-size-fits-all versus sector-specific rules and legislation. Vestager — defending uniform legislation — pointed to the overriding need to prevent time-consuming litigation and unsatisfactory case-by-case solutions. Scott Morton added that the flexibility of digital markets risks making sectoral regulation ineffective. Both Vestager and Monti highlighted the flexibility that national enforcement agencies at E.U. level enjoy as a means to tailor and test solutions and approaches. Miller stressed the need to closely watch how consumer protection regulations interact with regulations in adjacent sectors, such those that protect delivery workers.  She underscored the need to widen the perspective and look beyond consumers’ interests when regulating Big Tech.   

The Transatlantic Seminar Series on Consumer Law, Technology, and Inequality is co-sponsored by the Yale Law School Center for Private Law, the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law Hamburg, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Freie Universität Berlin, and the European University Institute. Over the course of five sessions, the Seminar Series brought together scholars, policymakers and activists from Europe and the U.S. to interrogate the role that law plays, and could play, in increasing economic justice for consumers.