As 2018 comes to a close, one key policy area that is sure to take center-stage in 2019 is the passage of the updated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), renamed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). While the USMCA is a big win for startups in several areas, Congress should continue to push the Administration in two areas to ensure that entrepreneurs will flourish under the new agreement. Overall, the USMCA sets a high standard for future free trade agreements and will positively impact the growth of American startups.
Current legal frameworks have allowed us to build creative online communities that have enabled musicians, writers, artists, developers, designers, and filmmakers throughout Europe to access a global online market. We are concerned that proposed changes to the European Copyright Directive, specifically Article 13, will threaten the existence of these vibrant online communities.
In the months since the original Safe Harbor agreement was invalidated by the European Court of Justice, the startup community has been in legal limbo awaiting resolution. The approval of this revised trans-Atlantic data-transfer framework brings much needed certainty for American startups with European users.
As the dust settles from last week’s stunning Brexit vote, the broader tech community, which staunchly supported remaining a part of the European Union (EU), is taking stock of the potential repercussions of the decision. While the United Kingdom (UK) and the EU still have to negotiate the exact terms of the deal (assuming the British can cobble together a new government committed to the Brexit), uncertainty surrounds several key issues important to the tech community.
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Operating a digital business in the European Union (EU) has long been a challenge due to the often conflicting patchwork of member state regulations that impact online enterprises. Recognizing the drag this regulatory inconsistency has on the future of the EU digital economy, the European Commission (EC) has been hard at work crafting a Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy that would further integrate the U.S. and EU economies, remove regulatory barriers across European states, and promote digital trade within the EU.
The EC’s DSM efforts are critical to growing Europe’s Internet economy, which is why many American stakeholders have welcomed parts of the DSM and European regulators’ efforts to reduce burdens on startups. But, unfortunately, the EC recently asked for feedback on policies that would have the opposite effect and harm online enterprises. Virtually every segment of the Internet community expressed alarm when the EC released a public consultation late last year regarding potential new regulations for online platforms and intermediaries.
The EC’s consultation purported to gather information on how it should regulate so-called “online platforms,” (e.g. search engines like Google or Bing, social networks like Facebook or Twitter, collaborative economy platforms like AirBnB or TaskRabbit, etc.) and in doing so, it signaled to the Internet community that it may issue regulations that, while well-intentioned, are misguided and potentially destructive. The EC’s approach to platform regulation isn’t just a problem for online intermediaries; it poses a threat to the Internet ecosystem as a whole. Not surprisingly then, the consultation saw filings from an enormous range of stakeholders — from large technology trade associations, to public interest organizations, to individual startups — all of whom express similar concerns with the EC’s approach.
Problems with the “Platform Consultation”
There are three key problems with the EC’s platform consultation.
First, online platform regulation as defined in the consultation does not make conceptual sense. The consultation purports to concern “online platforms,” though the range of activities it sweeps into this one category reveals the central flaw in the EC’s regulatory approach. It is simply impossible to craft sensible rules that target “online platforms,” as the consultation defines that term so broadly as to encompass an almost limitless range of activities that share little in common beyond an Internet presence.
As the Center for Democracy and Technology — a leading Internet policy nonprofit — notes in its submission, the definition of “online platform” used in the consultation “is so broad that it captures just about any website and any online application in operation in Europe and globally.”
In purporting to regulate “business in sectors as varied as media, connected cars, financial exchange and commerce” under the same standard, the consultation seems to ignore that “the regulatory needs of those sectors are appropriately distinct from one another,” as the Computer and Communications Industry Association — a trade association representing leading technology and computing firms — explains in its submission.
The Internet Association — another trade association representing some of the most innovative technology companies in the world — points outthe folly in this indiscriminate approach to regulation, asking, “In the physical world, one would not regulate banks, hotels, etc. in the same way, so why regulate the 21st Century version of those services in a blanket way simply because they are ‘on the Internet’?”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a business federation that represents the interests of American companies — notes in its submission that “the [online platform] definition offered misses the mark and we caution against attempting to regulate something that is inherently difficult to define. Platform is not a useful legal or regulatory category as many markets, businesses and services are ‘platforms,’ both online and off, and this essentially includes any function on the continuum between manufacturer/creator and end user.”
General purpose laws are sufficient
Second, even if it was possible to encapsulate all of these entities under a single, well-defined umbrella, the EC does not provide adequate justification for why this class of businesses and services should be subject to an entirely unique regulatory scheme in the first place. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes, “Nowhere does the consultation explain why online ‘platforms’ should be treated in a distinct manner from other businesses.” Yet the consultation foreshadows a heavy-handed regulatory approach that would suppress innovation and significantly increase burdens for entities subject to the new framework.
Reducing, not increasing, burdens on intermediaries fosters speech and creativity
Finally, the consultation signals an intent to increase the liability of intermediaries for illegal third party content beyond existing general law. This is an ill-advised approach. As TechNet — a trade association representing U.S. technology CEOs and senior executives — notes in their filing, “Strong intermediary liability protections promote innovation, empower users and small businesses to use platforms to reach a global audience, and encourage free expression and the democratization of access to information.” The open Internet think tank Public Knowledge put it succinctly in its submission: “The existence of strong and clear limitations on liability for platforms has been critical to the flourishing of online platforms for user expression and speech.”
One needs only look to the intermediary liability regime in the U.S. to recognize how critical such limitations are in facilitating technology innovation. The explosive growth of the Internet sector in the U.S. — and of so-called “Web 2.0” companies in particular — is a direct result of strong laws limiting intermediary liability, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For its part, the EU has crafted a “balanced, effective and proportionate [liability regime in the EU’s E-Commerce Directive] and has promoted dynamic, competitive services in a technologically neutral way” (TechNet filing). But the implication in the recent consultation that the EC is considering rethinking this strategy to expand the liability of online platforms is incredibly dangerous for the Internet economy, as it would threaten to chill innovation and dramatically increase barriers to entry for smaller players.
The EC’s DSM effort has the potential to completely transform the transatlantic digital economy. But if implemented incorrectly, it could have a grave impact on the European innovation ecosystem and widen the gap between the U.S. and EU digital markets. The sheer number of stakeholders who responded to the EC’s consultation with concerns should raise a red flag for the Commission and convince it to reconsider its approach. Links to some of these responses are below, and over the coming weeks, a number of these stakeholders will use this platform to further outline their concerns. Check back for updates here.
Large industry organizations
Computer and Communications Industry Association: survey
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: memo
Internet Infrastructure Coalition: survey
Software & Information Industry Association: memo
Internet Commerce Coalition: survey
Key startup voices
Apps Alliance: survey
Copia Institute: survey
Public interest community
Center for Democracy & Technology: survey
Public Knowledge: survey
Public Policy Institute: survey
Electronic Frontier Foundation & European Digital Rights: survey
R Street: survey
George Mason University Global Antitrust Institute memo
Center for Data Innovation: memo
Technology Policy Institute: memo
Organization for Transformative Works: memo
The European Court of Justice’s rejection last October of the European Commission’s so-called “safe harbor” agreement with the U.S. forced many American startups to grapple with a difficult choice: spend considerable time and money trying to find a different mechanism to legally import EU consumer data or sit tight and hope regulators worked it out before member states started filing lawsuits. Neither option was particularly appealing, and thankfully, the EC’s announcement this morning that negotiators had reached a framework agreement on Safe Harbor 2.0 (rebranded as “Privacy Shield”) removes some of the uncertainty startups have faced over the past three months. But does this tentative framework provide the future-proof, legal certainty that is essential for startups operating in the EU?
For those of you who are just tuning in, here’s a quick refresher: the EU’s Data Protection Directive imposes certain obligations on how entities in different countries can handle data from EU consumers. To help streamline compliance, the EC and U.S. entered into an agreement that allowed U.S. companies to self-certify compliance with the Directive and thereby legally transfer data across the Atlantic. This system worked quite well in facilitating EU-U.S. data flows, until the ECJ issued a ruling in October that U.S. laws permitting the NSA to conduct mass surveillance of consumer data violated the Data Protection Directive, thereby voiding the safe harbor and opening up the door to potential legal action against companies that continued to import EU consumer data without a different legal justification.
Policymakers in the EC and the U.S. Department of Commerce promptly got to work on a new safe harbor agreement but faced considerable time pressure, as European Data Protection Agencies were set to commence enforcement proceedings against non-compliant companies if the parties could not reach an agreement by January 31. Crafting an important international agreement in such a relatively short time frame was a challenging endeavor, and as Sunday’s deadline approached, the possibility of a world without safe harbor began to set in.
For many U.S. companies that had previously relied on the safe harbor, failing to finalize a new agreement would be an inconvenience, but hardly insurmountable. Large multinationals had many alternative data transfer pathways at their disposal, like Binding Corporate Rules or Model Contractual Clauses. Others could simply set up servers overseas and process EU consumer data locally. But, these strategies were only feasible for those with enormous financial resources and a legal staff sufficient to navigate 28 different state data agencies and regulations—resources that small, cash-strapped startups just don’t have.
Consequently, startups faced a much more dire situation, and many simply had no idea how to proceed. Some mature, better-funded startups followed the lead of larger tech companies, working up model contract clauses, often at the behest of international partners that wouldn’t proceed without such agreements. Other hoped that updates to their privacy policies and consent processes would suffice, though this was something of a legal gamble and a potential disruption to business (how many consumers enjoy having to click through new popup consent forms?). Some companies, devoid of other sensible options, planned to continue business as usual, expecting that policymakers would eventually craft a solution and hoping they were too small to draw the ire of member state regulators if no agreement could be reached.
The EC’s Tuesday announcement of a “political agreement” was therefore met with cautious optimism and relief. The hard work that the EC and the U.S. Department of Commerce put in over the past few months paid off, pulling out an agreement at the eleventh hour and returning stability and some certainty to the international data flows that make the Internet work. Going forward, consumers and companies on both sides of the Atlantic should hope that this newly formulated “Privacy Shield” will provide a simple, well-defined framework for data exchange, so long as it remains in force. But this difficult experience should serve as a reminder of how the heavy burden of regulatory uncertainty often falls hardest on the smallest players. Startups that made user security and privacy a central part of their companies were nevertheless caught in an international dispute between national governments and multinational companies with few feasible options to stay square with laws that quickly became unclear. In the end, the drama surrounding Safe Harbor 2.0 is both a win for prompt, sensible policymaking and a lesson of how policy disputes can impact the startup sector in unexpected ways.
Though the EU’s economy is the largest in the world in terms of GDP, its innovation economy has historically lagged behind the US and other international peers. Investment in EU startups has risen slowly but steadily in the past decade, but, the EU is home to only four of the top 20 cities for startups in Compass’s 2015 rankings. This is not just bad news for the EU economy, but also for US startups looking to expand overseas.
The sluggishness of the EU’s startup sector is due in no small part to the significant regulatory burdens involved in conducting business across member state boundaries. In fact, our research shows that how a country regulates its technology sector has an enormous impact on early stage investment in startups. In a study we published earlier this year, 88% of worldwide investors said they would be uncomfortable investing in digital content intermediaries in countries with an unfavorable or murky regulatory environment.
Fortunately, the EU is already well underway in devising a fix for its complicated regulatory hurdles in the form of the proposed EU “Digital Single Market”—essentially a uniform, trans-Europe market for digital goods and services. As part of its effort, the EU Commission recently issued a consultation asking for information and commentary regarding the value of online platforms and intermediaries in promoting innovation and economic growth. Since the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy is still somewhat in flux, there is no guarantee that the new regulations it puts in place will work if the Commission doesn’t receive enough feedback explaining how crucial online platforms are in a well-functioning Internet economy, and how dangerous restrictive regulations would be to the viability of the EU’s burgeoning startup sector.
To maximize the potential of the Digital Single Market and foster startup growth throughout Europe, the EU Commission should ensure that its Digital Single Market strategy focuses on policies that support online platforms and intermediaries. Online platforms are critical to a healthy Internet economy by virtue of the core services they provide in connecting Internet users and facilitating the flow of information, but as the US tech sector shows, their real economic value lies in their ability to support interoperable startups that use larger intermediaries to build and promote their services. The Google Play and Apple App stores feature more than 1.8 and 1.5 million apps, respectively—a great many of which were created by the startups responsible for virtually all new net job growth. The economic value of this market is significant; by 2017, worldwide mobile app revenue alone is projected to exceed $77 billion. Assuming the EU doesn’t hamper the growth of this market by crafting regulations that impose undue costs and restrictions on online platforms, Europe stands to gain a significant portion of the app economy’s growth. Projections estimate that employment from the app market in Europe will increase from 1.8 million in 2013 to more than 4.8 million in 2018.
Of course, the app market represents just a small fraction of the value that online intermediaries provide in spurring startup activity. Social media platforms and search tools allow startups to easily and cheaply connect with customers and online payment platforms help lower startup costs by outsourcing payment systems; together, these intermediaries give entrepreneurs the ability to reach customers and turn their ideas into business realities. Online platforms are the hubs off of which countless startups have built their businesses, and the low cost of operating a business in this symbiotic, open model of innovation allows new entrepreneurs to build ventures with few resources. In this sense, allowing online platforms to operate effectively across the EU is critical to growing the EU’s startup ecosystem, not to mention to US companies looking to expand into international markets. As the EU collects information regarding the role online intermediaries play in Europe’s startup market, it’s important that the Commission hear from entrepreneurs and innovators on the ground who can speak to the value freely operating intermediaries provide to fledgling enterprises. The consultation closes December 30; interested parties can fill out the EU’s survey here.
UPDATE: The EU Commission is holding an event this Thursday in San Francisco at the Consulate General of the Netherlands (120 Kearny St.) with key stakeholders to discuss the implications of its online platform regulation strategy. This is an incredible opportunity to help shape the future of EU tech policy, so sign up while there’s still space.
In the name of “individual rights and free expression,” WikiLeaks has released the draft text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Negotiations over this trade agreement began in secret between 12 Pacific Rim countries in December 2012, and despite the secrecy, we know (from a previous leak) that discussions have covered intellectual property, competition and State-owned enterprises, environmental policy, services and investment, and government procurement, among other issues. But how will this impact startups?
America's low ranking is alarming, especially given the US's assumed dominance in the global political economy and its role as a cross-border cultural arbiter. When you consider that the domestic technology industry is a major exporter of inventions and ideas, the concern over this country’s poor performance on gender equality should become only more acute.
The best trade agreements strengthen relationships with nations and regions vital to United States foreign and economic policy. When it comes to the secretive discussions around the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, any benefits might also come with now-unseen costs to startups and the tech industry as a whole if negotiators do not consider unintended consequences.
Ensuring compliance with myriad layers of government regulations in one country, let only globally, can be a daunting task. Take Square's recent run in with the State of Illinois, for example. Though market demand may be similar around the nation, and around the world, the regulations that guide markets vary from one region to another, much to the woe of startups.
That’s why Engine attended the first-ever international Startup Advocacy Summit in East London, organized by UK-based organization COADEC. The aim was to bring together policy groups representing tech startups, share our experiences, and devise a clear path forward to affect change on the way politicians create laws that impact startups. Alongside startup advocates from France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, and the UK, Engine
delved into the issues that impact startups worldwide.
After hearing from different speakers on the first day, it was clear that despite location, all startups want to innovate freely. With that in mind, we worked to create an ideal startup ecosystem focusing on the issues that impact startups the most: immigration, patents, and data security.
After hours of healthy debate, we reached an agreement relatively painlessly -- confirming our shared ground, and affirming our policy views as reasonable.
Here’s how we answered three key questions:
1. How do we solve the visa problem?
Visa policies should be clear and flexible, allowing startups to find the talent they need, when they need it. We think the Senate Gang of Eight proposal will help startups in the U.S., so we're fighting for the change it promises.
2. What would the ideal Intellectual Property system look like?
Patent systems should promote and incentivize innovation by having clear and easy to understand frameworks. It's clear that we need comprehensive reform here in America, and startups need to be at the table when lawmakers discuss what that looks like.
3. How do we secure the open Internet?
Data regulation should be simple, giving industry room to innovate.
Of course, things get a lot messier off the island, but there’s hope that these reasonable voices will be heard more loudly when smaller organizations band together. We’re not exactly sure what the collaboration will look like in the future, but we’re looking forward to working closely with many of the folks we met, and others we haven’t, to advocate for better conditions for startups globally.
We welcome your thoughts on how this can best be achieved.