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Consumer Reports remarks at the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Technology Roundtable

On 07 December 2021, US Secretary of Commerce Raimondo and European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager co-chaired a roundtable to gather stakeholder inputs on the potential work of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council.

Attendees included: Jay Carney, SVP Amazon; Dan Schulman, CEO PayPal; François Locoh-Donou, CEO, F5 Networks; Tekedra Mawakana CEO, Waymo; Victoria Espinel, CEO Business Software Alliance; Alexandra Givens, President & CEO Center for Democracy & Technology; Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, Director Digital Innovation, and Democracy Initiative, German Marshall Fund; Catherine Feingold, Deputy President, International Trade Union Confederation and Director of the AFL-CIO International Division; and Sumit Sharma, Senior Researcher – Tech Competition, Consumer Reports.

Here are Mr. Sharma’s remarks at the roundtable (edited for clarity).

Thank you, Secretary Raimondo and Executive Vice President Vestager, for the invitation to participate in this roundtable.

I’m Sumit Sharma, Senior Researcher at Consumer Reports leading our work on tech competition matters. Consumer Reports is an 85 year-old independent, non-profit and nonpartisan organization that works with consumers to create a fair and just marketplace. CR advocates for laws and company practices that put consumers first. The organization surveys millions of Americans every year, reports extensively on the challenges and opportunities for today’s consumers, and provides ad-free content and tools to 6 million members across the U.S.

In a world transformed by technology the challenges and opportunities for today’s consumers are also changing.

The digital frontier comes with many opportunities for consumers, such as new technological possibilities, increased access to goods, and improved convenience. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, it also poses many risks: The large-scale collection of personal data threatens people’s rights to security, privacy, and control over their own personal information and data. A handful of companies now control more and more of how we communicate, acquire information, make purchases, and live our lives.

The digital and global nature of these services means that consumer protection is increasingly a cross-border issue and rights that we secured in the previous decades must be fiercely fought for again as digital innovation outpaces the protections needed to keep the market working for all of us.

The TTC is a great opportunity for our governments to work together on three pillars to benefit our consumers and citizens who share common values.

First, coordinate on measures to address the market power of the largest online platforms by adopting policies to introduce more competition and innovation in the digital ecosystem.

Second, cooperate on developing a common baseline consumer charter which can be used to set policies for the deployment of new technologies like AI and IoT.

Third, given the wide ranging and transformational effects of these new technologies on our economy, markets, and societies maximise transparency and opportunities for public interest groups to engage and provide inputs. There is concern that this has not always been the case in the past like for the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership)

On measures to address market power, the Digital Markets Act in Europe, the President’s Executive order on competition, and legislative proposals setting fair market rules in Congress are steps in the right direction. The legislative proposals in the US include requiring giant online platforms to offer interoperability and portability of data with appropriate privacy safeguards; to refrain from discriminatory conduct; and additional scrutiny of new acquisitions over 50 million dollars.

These fair market rules may require some adjustment of business practices and compliance costs for these giant corporations, but this will ultimately return control and agency to consumers, enable more competition and innovation. In particular more diverse and breakthrough innovation as everyone not just corporations that own and control critical platform infrastructure like online marketplaces and mobile ecosystems can innovate without artificial restrictions.

On privacy, CR will be happy to support the Department of Commerce with other civil society partners to advance meaningful privacy protection in Congress.

On new digital technologies, develop a baseline Consumer and Citizen charter based on our shared values and concerns. This could cover for example:

    • Privacy by design or default with consumers being asked to opt-in rather than opt-out, and guaranteeing online privacy and safety for minors.
    • Measures to address the rise of unsafe and illegal products online. This could involve formal cooperation to exchange data on non-compliant and dangerous products, conduct coordinated investigations, and jointly recall unsafe products from the market. This type of cooperation already exists between the EU and Canada.
    • On AI and IoT, develop common best practices on risk assessment and auditing of systems and exchange information about the security of connected devices. Ensure that in additional to government agencies and regulators- non-profits, academics and researchers also have access to AI and IoT interfaces to enable third party verification and pressure to improve standards in the consumer and citizen interest. This is essential to ensure, for example, transparency, accountability, and fairness of algorithmic practices.

Finally, the TTC should develop common frameworks to adopt compatible policy solutions but not necessarily the same policy solutions. Some level of divergence should be expected given the different expectations of consumers and citizens and different legal rights they enjoy in the EU and the US. Global digital platforms that operate across national borders should expect to bear the compliance cost of somewhat different rules. What is important is that proposed remedies and policy solutions in the US and EU are compatible with each other and allow each party to build on the others’ solutions.

Thank you for listening and I look forward to our discussion. I would also like to thank various partners like Consumer International, the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, and Public Citizen for their collaboration with CR on these matters.