It came as a very pleasant surprise this morning, to see Automattic’s name alongside Twitter, Vimeo and Mozilla on an open letter to the European Union, ahead of next week’s delayed publication of the new Digital Services Act.
A consistent problem in recent years has been the failure of second-tier platforms to show up and make their voices heard, particularly in Europe.
Some felt they didn’t ‘do’ politics. Some simply weren’t interested in anything outside the US. Most were happy to ride on the coat-tails of their fastest-growing peers, the likes of Google and Facebook, whose greater revenues allowed them to build public policy teams – first in Washington, then in Brussels. They were our kind of people, and they represented the digital angle well.
Until, that is, Google and Facebook became the problem.
And as my former Automattic colleague Stephen Blythe memorably put it: if you regulate the internet as though only Google and Facebook exist, you will create an internet where only Google and Facebook exist.
We saw this with 2019’s EU Copyright Directive, introducing requirements which realistically only the largest, wealthiest platforms could satisfy. Measures intended to protect ‘the little guy’ in the creative sector could well stymie the growth of ‘little guy’ platforms, thus allowing Big Tech to grow ever bigger. Whoops.
And with the DSA imminent, YouTube’s chief product officer Neal Mohan appeared to call for more of the same last month, insisting that: ‘anything that the DSA does has to apply to all companies, all platforms, not just the large ones but the small ones as well’.
‘We’re writing to you today,’ the letter states, ‘as a group of companies to advocate for a regulatory conversation around illegal and harmful content that firmly roots Open Internet principles at the heart of the EU’s digital future.’
Choosing their words wisely, the signatories note that in Europe and around the world: ‘The laws that laid a foundation for the spectacular growth of the Internet – with its economic, social, and cultural revelations – are now being reviewed to assess whether they’re fit for the next generation.’
‘Reviewed’? Joe Biden was rather more forceful in January, telling the New York Times (see 1h26 in the video at the top): ‘Section 230 should be revoked, immediately, should be revoked, number one, for Zuckerberg and other platforms.’ Challenged by the Times’s tech-savvy Charlie Warzel, formerly of BuzzFeed, he repeated it, twice. The rhetoric may have softened since, but it seems certain that changes are coming on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today’s letter tries to reframe the contentious issue of content removal, calling for: ‘a content moderation discussion that emphasises the difference between illegal and harmful content and highlights the potential of interventions that address how content is surfaced and discovered. Included in this is how consumers are offered real choice in the curation of their online environment.’ Again, a wise choice of words, bringing in Europe’s favourite angles, consumer choice and competition.
It asserts that: ‘in the digital world, content policy can influence the shape of markets’ – again, playing to Brussels’s competition instincts; and very gently brings up the example of the Copyright Directive, noting its ‘regressive impact on smaller players’.
‘In sum,’ it concludes, ‘we ask the EU to defend the Open Internet.’
This is precisely the kind of constructive engagement that I tried to encourage more of during my time with Automattic. Indeed, the lack of such engagement was one of the primary factors in my decision to move on. If the company has finally found its voice, and some resourcing, I’m delighted.