Europe’s Digital Markets Act Is Breaking Open the Empires of Big Tech

Citizens of the European Union live in an internet built and ruled by foreign powers. Most people in the EU use an American search engine, shop on an American ecommerce site, thumb American phones, and scroll through American social media feeds.

That fact has triggered increasing alarm in the corridors of Brussels, as the EU tries to understand how exactly those companies warp the economy around them. Five years ago, Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism neatly articulated much of lawmakers’ critique of the tech giants, just as they were preparing to enforce the flagship GDPR privacy law. Now as the EU enacts another historic piece of tech regulation, the Digital Markets Act, which companies must comply with starting tomorrow, March 7, a different critic du jour sums up the new mood in Brussels.

In his 2023 book, Technofeudalism, Yanis Varoufakis argues the big US tech platforms have brought feudalism back to Europe. The former Greek finance minister sees little difference between the medieval serf toiling on land he does not own and the Amazon seller who must subject themselves to the company’s strict rules while giving the company a cut of each sale.

The idea that a handful of big tech companies have subjugated internet users into digital empires has permeated through Europe. Technofeudalism shares bookshelf space with Cloud Empires and Digital Empires, which make broadly similar arguments. For years, Europe’s wanna-be Big Tech rivals, like Sweden’s Spotify or Switzerland’s ProtonMail, have claimed that companies like Google, Meta, and Apple unfairly limit their ability to reach potential users, through tactics like preinstalling Gmail on new Android phones or Apple’s strict rules for the App Store. “It’s not a problem to be a monopoly,” says Sandra Wachter, professor of technology and regulation at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. “It becomes a problem if you’re starting to exclude other people from the market.”

Crowbarred Open

In answer to that problem, Brussels’ politicos agreed to the Digital Markets Act in 2022. It is designed to rein in the largest tech companies—almost all of them from the US—that act as gatekeepers between consumers and other businesses. A sibling regulation, the Digital Services Act, which focuses more on freedom of expression, went into effect last month. Wachter says they follow a long tradition of laws trying to protect the public and the economy from state power, wielded either by the government or the monarch. “With the rise of the private sector and globalization, power has just shifted,” she adds. Tech platforms rule over digital lives like kings. The DMA is part of the attempt to keep up.

The rules change tomorrow for platforms deemed “gatekeepers” by the DMA—so far including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and TikTok parent Bytedance. The law essentially crowbars open what the EU calls the gatekeepers’ “core services.” In the past regulators have proposed containing corporate giants by taking them to pieces. EU lawmakers have adopted the motto “Don’t break up big tech companies, break them open.”

In theory, that means big changes for EU residents’ digital lives. Users of iPhones should soon be able to download apps from places other than Apple’s app store; Microsoft Windows will no longer have Microsoft-owned Bing as its default search tool; Meta-owned WhatsApp users will be able to communicate with people on rival messaging apps; and Google and Amazon will have to tweak their search results to create more room for rivals. There will also be limits on how users’ data can be shared between one company’s different services. Fines for noncompliance can reach up to 20 percent of global sales revenue. The law also gives the EU recourse to the nuclear option of forcing tech companies to sell off parts of their business.

Homegrown Challengers

Most tech giants have expressed uncharacteristic alarm about the changes required of them this week. Google has spoken of “difficult trade-offs,” which may mean its search results send more traffic to hotel or flight aggregators. Apple has claimed that the DMA jeopardizes its devices’ security. Apple, Meta and TikTok have all filed legal challenges against the EU, saying new rules unfairly target their services. The argument in favor of the status quo is that competition is actually thriving—just look at TikTok, a technology company launched in the past decade, now designated as one of the so-called gatekeepers.

But TikTok is an exception. The DMA wants to make it normal for new household names to emerge in the tech industry; to “drive innovation so that smaller businesses can really make it,” as the EU’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager explained to WIRED, back in 2022. Many hope some of the new businesses that “make it” will be European. For almost every big tech service, there is a smaller homegrown equivalent: from German search engine Ecosia to French messaging app Olvid and Polish Amazon alternative Allegro. These are the companies many hope will benefit from the DMA, even if there is widespread skepticism about how effective the new rules will be at forcing the tech giants to change.