Digital Empires: A Conversation with Anu Bradford

Justin Hendrix / Oct 8, 2023

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

There is a term you've likely heard on the Tech Policy Press podcast in the past: the Brussels Effect. The term is meant to describe the European Union’s outsized influence on global markets through its regulations. You may not know that the term was first coined by Anu Bradford, a professor at Columbia Law School. She wrote a book about it called The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World.

Now, she has a new book, just out from Oxford University Press, called Digital Empires: The Global Battle to Regulate Technology The book describes the geopolitical competition to establish digital governance models between the US, the EU, and China. I had the opportunity to speak to Bradford about the book, and why she thinks the US government, by failing to regulate its tech companies, may ultimately imperil not only the US model but internet freedom more broadly.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Anu Bradford:

So my name is Anu Bradford. I'm a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, and I'm the author of the newly released book, Digital Empires, The Global Battle to Regulate Technology.

Justin Hendrix:

This book came to me as a review copy, which landed with a thud. It is a pretty hefty tome. How long have you been working on this?

Anu Bradford:

So it took me around two years to write. I was reading pretty purposefully towards writing something about a year before that, but the writing itself was maybe a two year process.

Justin Hendrix:

And how does this fit within your broader research interests?

Anu Bradford:

So I am generally right about the global economy in law, international political economy with the special focus on regulation. So my previous book, the Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the world was my contribution to the debate on the EU's role in the world and the kind of regulatory power that the EU has that allows the EU then to shape the global marketplace.

So this book is still about regulation, but it really is focusing on technology regulations. So the digital economy, and it also then takes the conversation outside of just the EU. So it's looking at the three primary regulatory and technology powers, the United States and China and the EU.

Justin Hendrix:

So you start by characterizing those three regulatory regimes. How would you characterize each in simple terms, the US, the EU, and China?

Anu Bradford:

Yeah, so those three jurisdictions all have a different vision for the digital society, and they have embedded that vision in a different type of regulatory framework. So I have labeled these different regulatory approaches or regulatory models, the American market driven model, the Chinese state driven model, and the European rights driven model.

So they all reflect a somewhat different emphasis on the relationship between the markets and the state and the individual, and reflect then the sort of deeper value set that each of these jurisdictions have.

Justin Hendrix:

I've had this feeling in past when you think about the US and China in particular, that it's almost like looking through a funhouse mirror. When you look through a funhouse mirror, on the other side, you see the reflection, but all the bits that were thin on you in real life are Made to be more globulous and the bits that were more globulous are made to be more thin.

It feels like that's the case to me sometimes when I think about how inverted the sort of China versus US is. Is that right in your view?

Anu Bradford:

So yes and no Justin. So I would say that there are certainly some similarities. So even though I emphasize the state driven foundation of the Chinese digital economy, We also need to recognize that there is a lot of sort of market driven characteristics that are driving the Chinese tech economy.

So for instance, there's a lot of US venture capital that went into building these massively successful Chinese tech giants. So I wouldn't say that they are completely opposite, but in that sense your image of thinking about these two regimes. In different terms is also correct that there are some fundamental differences.

So if you think about this American philosophy it is very easy to the techno optimist techno libertarian way to think about digital economy. It, prioritizes free market and the free speech and incentives to innovate. So the free speech part of it, obviously, is a major distinction from the Chinese model.

So China, like the US, is very focused on making China a technological superpower. But the government also leverages technology as the tool for surveillance and censorship. and propaganda in order then to entrench the political power of the Communist Party and ensure social stability in the country.

So that's obviously where the American commitment to free speech and free internet stands in a very stark contrast to the world internet where the conversations are all filtered through a very strict censorship regime.

Justin Hendrix:

One of the things that's interesting is through the book, you interrogate all of these different models, but the US model in particular, you walk away with a sense of it I don't know, losing its luster. The idea that perhaps the US has overplayed its hand, that its goal to advance internet freedom has been somehow exposed is, is really a kind of. Great powers strategy to just to exert its influence that the tech lash has laid bare all the sort of excesses of the US model.

Anu Bradford:

Yes, absolutely. So in many ways, I think the US model is a victim of its own early. That the US tech companies were too successful, they grew too big, and today exert the kind of economic and political and informational and cultural power over societies that the individuals and governments around the world are no longer comfortable with.

So at the same time when these tech companies have provided tremendous benefit, a lot of wealth, Products and services that all of us around the world continue to use and have become dependent on. They are also responsible for many of the harms that we are now intensely aware of. And that has created exactly what you call the kind of tech clash or the backlash against the power of these companies and an attempt for the governments to step back in and intervene in the marketplace and rein in the excessive power of these companies.

Justin Hendrix:

Let's talk a little bit about that, the relationship between scale and the state, the scale of tech platforms in the state, because we have similarly sized companies in China as in the US How does the state interact differently across those two regions?

Anu Bradford:

So I would say that in general, the US tech companies are not beholden to the state quite to the same extent compared to their Chinese counterparts. So, the US tech companies certainly have had, Many connections with the US Government, the initial funding that the US Tech sector benefited from that came from the US Defense industry that really invested in building these critical technologies.

And we also know Edward Snowden revealed to the entire world how these tech companies have occasionally been agents of the US surveillance states and handed over the personal data that has. Benefited than the national security apparatus in the US So it is not that the US Tech companies have no connections to the American state.

But we also have a lot of instances where, for instance, there are requests by the US Government to hand over some data that is in the possession of these tech companies. And these tech companies take the US To the courts and refuse to hand over the data. So we see also these battles whereby the US tech companies don't simply acquiesce to the demands of the state.

And I think there's a common perception that the Chinese companies don't have the same kind of freedom. And that has now led to these concerns, for instance, in the United States, that when companies like TikTok obtain the data of Americans, will that be passed on immediately and unconditionally to Beijing?

Justin Hendrix:

So I sometimes think in my mind that another one of these kind of funhouse mirror kind of examples, perhaps in the US It seems like, and again, I'm drawing a caricature here, but the US It seems like the government is somewhat more beholden to the tech firms than the other way around. Whereas in China, it's the opposite.

Anu Bradford:

I like that analogy and that is one of the central concerns of my book that companies ultimately are the true digital empires the tech companies, because the government has made a political choice to set these companies free and not to impose those guardrails. So we have in the United a legislation like Section 230, which is effectively a liability shield for these companies. So if you post something on YouTube, Google and YouTube remain free to take that content down or not to do so, and they are not held liable because they are not considered the ones who produced, or are the origins of that information.

So those are the kind of laws that ultimately, gave these companies tremendous power to behave as they wish, but there I would like to emphasize that even if these laws set these companies free, it is the lawmakers in the U S that hold the power. To rewrite those laws and to take back the control and leverage the authority that they have as lawmakers.

But for a variety of reasons, we have seen the inability or unwillingness to do so in practice.

Justin Hendrix:

We've got the US leveraging its private power, you say, China, its infrastructure power, very clear kind of distinctions between its models. And then you describe the E. U. leveraging its regulatory power, that's its sort of superpower this book's about thinking about where these things overlap, where they come into conflict. But is it right to think of the EU as a kind of middle way? You might emerge from this sort of thinking that perhaps that's the way you framed it, but that doesn't seem quite right.

Anu Bradford:

So I think there's a framing to say that the EU model is the middle way, because often in public conversation, there is this perception that we have two technological superpowers and the world is basically facing a choice between aligning things. The themselves with the US or with China. We have free internet, we have controlled internet, and the rest of the world would be at the mercy of the tech war between the two superpowers and forced to subscribe to an alternative vision that they have for the digital world.

And there I challenge that claim and I argued that. The EU is not willing to, nor is it forced to, choose between the US and China. For the EU, the Chinese model, the state driven model, is too oppressive. But also the US model is something that the Europeans are comfortable with. That is too permissive.

And that's why the Europeans have crafted their own third way forward. And I think many individuals and governments around the world now with this increasing resentment with the power of the tech companies have come to the conclusion that it is the European model that best checks corporate power and protects democratic structures of our society and generally advances public interest.

So in that sense, I would say that yes, the Europeans do provide a different vision for the EU and for the broader world.

Justin Hendrix:

The argument that's often made in the US, of course, is that the EU regulatory model impedes innovation. There's a reason these big tech firms are not located in Europe for the most part. They come from Silicon Valley. You take that on in the book. You suggest that's not necessarily the case. What's the evidence for that?

Anu Bradford:

Yes, Justin, there is a very entrenched view that there's an inevitable trade off between digital regulation and innovation.

And the more stringent your digital regulation, then less innovation one perceives. And at this site, you look at the EU that is very capable of generating regulations, but that is clearly lagging behind the US in actually generating technologies. That seems to be ringing true. But I don't think the European digital regulations are the reason why the Europeans haven't managed to create a thriving tech industry.

So it is not because of the GDPR that the Europeans are behind, or if the Europeans now decided to scrap the AI Act that they are working on. It's not that suddenly we would have this booming AI industry emerging from Europe. So I rather 0.4. Factors that I think alone are much more important components of the tech ecosystem in the US and the EU that explains the differences.

So one is that there is no integrated digital single market in the EU. It is very hard for tech companies to scale across 27 billion new different markets where they face cultural barriers, linguistic barriers, but also many remaining legal barriers that the EU has failed to remove. Second, it is much harder to fund your tech innovations in the EU.

So if you compare it to very robust, thriving venture capital industry in the US You just don't find anything comparable in the EU And there is not, for instance, a deep integrated capital markets union that would allow them tech startups to tap into capital across the EU. I would also mention the sort of attitude towards risk taking and failure, because you cannot really pursue the most ambitious innovations if you don't have entrepreneurs that are comfortable taking risks.

And in the EU, you often penalize if you take risks and if you fail. So the bankruptcy laws. are very punitive in the EU. So failure is often fatal. Whereas in the Silicon Valley, it's the right of passage. And then you go and raise more money. So that obviously creates very different incentives for tech entrepreneurship.

And then, Justin, I would mention a fourth fact that to me is really significant. So you cannot have innovation if you don't have innovators. And the US has been extremely successful in drawing the best talent, not just from across the US, but from across the world. So immigration has been a powerful Instrument for the US to enhance its tech innovation. So if you even just look at over 1 billion startups in the US over 50 percent of those have an immigrant founder or if we focus for a moment, just on this household names, the largest tech companies that all of us talk about on a daily basis and think about, for instance, Steve Jobs of Apple. He is a son of a Syrian immigrant. Jeff Bezos of Amazon is a second generation Cuban. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, is South African. Sergey Brin the co founder of Google, is Russian. Edouardo Saverin, the cofounder of Facebook, is Brazilian. And I could go on. But this really shows you how the US has benefited enormously. From foreign talent and something that the Europeans haven't managed to replicate.

So there's a whole explanation why the US tech sector is doing so much better than the European tech sector. And if we were just to, for instance, get rid of the GDPR, we would not do anything to these other fundamental features that I think have much more explanatory power in practice.

Justin Hendrix:

So I want to turn back to this idea that the US has overplayed its hand. The current US president is reinvested in some of these efforts around internet freedom. You've got the Senate majority leader running these AI forums where he claims innovation is our North star.

Yet still years into a tech lash, almost no regulation that has been put forward, at least at the federal level, to constrain any of the large tech platforms. What kind of undergirds your sense that all this is actually a sign of weakness of the US tech model?

Anu Bradford:

So the US tech model, I think, has outlived its sort of initial success and usefulness and ability to create the kind of digital society that people at large benefit from and are comfortable with.

But somehow the US political system just cannot update. It cannot really adjust to these change in realities, and it cannot really be responsive to the change in public opinion. So we have a very different conversation about these tech companies in the US today. So the Americans no longer trust these tech companies, and these tech companies have a track record showing that they are not the guardians of our data.

They do not moderate content online in ways that would create a more robust, inclusive democracy. So they have failed us repeatedly. And at the same time, the US Congress has not managed to do anything about it. And I think that just shows the kind of broader failure of the US political model, that it is no longer responsive to the needs and the will of its citizens.

And that concerns me a great deal.

Justin Hendrix:

One of the things you speak to with regard to the kind of fight between the US and China is the points at which the kind of skirmish goes to each other's soil you've got, you mentioned earlier already that there's been a lot of US investment, of course, in Chinese tech and of course, vice versa and there's quite a battle on with of

internet access in both places. Where does this sort of heat up? What are the things that are most at contention at the moment when it comes to how the tech industry from China operates in the U S and vice versa?

Anu Bradford:

Yeah. So there is a growing sense that the most important battle crown is now.

Technology. So tech is the source of economic power, but it is also a source of geopolitical power, and it is a key ingredient that determines the future military power as well. So that's why the question of the tech supremacy. Has become really central for the US China rivalry in today's geopolitical era, where the each perceives one another more as a threat.

So there's a growing sense that China is really catching up. To the US In terms of developing its innate capabilities and therefore gaining a much more prominent role in the global economy. And that for the US is only not only in economic challenge. It is also geopolitical, potentially military.

And a big ideological challenge because that really is potentially taking the world to a sort of very different place ideologically and politically than the world that was centered on these American ideas of liberal democracy and the extreme right. Of those freedoms embedded in that philosophy.

So right now, the technology for instance around AI is seen as absolutely critical. So China has declared that it wants to be the leader in AI by 2030. And it shows some signs that it is. Marching towards that goal. So China has made very important strides in growing its capabilities and the US is determined to retain its own supremacy and increasingly also then to use the more contentious word contain the Chinese growth or at least.

To make sure that the U. S is not contributing to the buildup off Chinese capabilities that can then be turned against the U. S in terms of, for instance, the military capabilities of China. So here, for instance if I zoom into one of the key battles, it's really about the chips, the semiconductors that are critical for the hardware that is then critical, providing the computing power for artificial intelligence.

And that's where we have seen export controls where the US has collaborated with the Japanese and key European manufacturers to restrict China's access to these high end chips. We see investment controls, whether inbound or outbound that is also now Then preventing the US Capital to flow into building China's own capabilities in this domain.

So this is an increasingly contentious, but also very costly battle because even though some of theserestrictions seem to be working this, there's also a consensus that none of these powers can become truly technologically sovereign. You cannot replicate. Domestically, the complex and costly supply chain that is now powering our semiconductors, for instance.

So this is likely to be the battle that will wage on. We see escalation alternate with de escalation because we realize how costly this battle is and how much the commercial destinies of the US and China remain deeply intertwined.

Justin Hendrix:

I'm struck by the role that all of this might play in the thinking around Taiwan on both sides.

I know that it's not, of course, the only thing that's at play in the kind of battle for the future of Taiwan. But what do you expect will happen there? Do you think that will concern over semiconductors will play a significant role in the decision whether to enter into a kinetic conflict?

Anu Bradford:

So that's obviously the most dangerous scenario. And reading for the probabilities that China would actually launch a military attack against Taiwan to seize control of TMSC. That is a key manufacturer of semiconductors. That is a, an Extremely dangerous and scary scenario, and I think many experts still perceive that to be highly unlikely, but at the same time it cannot be fully excluded.

So there's been growing tensions around Taiwan, and I think it's still informs the strategic thinking in the US, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. But that is, that would be a very costly conflict and it would take us to a very different territory in this ongoing tech war.

Justin Hendrix:

So what if the rest of the world outside these three great powers, and you spend a bit of time on India I perhaps could argue maybe India. Might present a kind of different model should perhaps be the fourth digital empire here. How do you think about India? How do you think about perhaps even Africa as a region of the world that may present different models or a different model?

Anu Bradford:

Yeah, so I think the rest of the world are often important battleground states for these empires and there are certain countries that more neatly fall within the sphere of influence of China, for instance, or within the sphere of influence of Europe or the US But I think many countries are straddling between these different models and maybe adopting elements of each.

So when I mentioned that how these empires. Export their models and expand their sphere of influence. They all are doing it in somewhat different ways. So the US is exporting its private power. China is exporting its infrastructure power. So building 5G networks, undersea cables, data centers surveillance cities and so forth.

And the Europeans are often exporting their regulatory power. So this leads into each empire contributing a different layer. to the digital governance. So you have many countries where there's a tremendously important presence of US tech companies, but where you also find Chinese infrastructure and European regulations governing the, that technology and the infrastructure in those countries.

So that also leads that there is a simultaneous influence by the three empires in different markets. So if we focus on India, for instance, it is big enough of a market that it is also in the position to carve out its own space and articulate its own vision. I wouldn't say that India right now is a fourth empire.

I don't think there's the kind of expansion of an Indian Vision for the digital economy or the presence of Indian tech companies, technologies or regulations outside of India, but it clearly is a major market if you just think about the Internet users and also the how active the government has been, for instance, it has been cracking down on Chinese tech companies.

Many Chinese apps are prohibited in India. So it has taken a rather hard line against China. I think it's a Good example that if you look at the new privacy legislation in India, it is in many ways a following closely the European GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, but then it introduces very tough data localization provisions. That seems to be a feature from China. So it seems to be taking more selectively the elements of each empire and according to what are the needs of the country.

Justin Hendrix:

And what of other countries that are caught in the midst of all this, in Latin America, Africa?

Anu Bradford:

So Latin America and Africa have been continents where China has made very important strides and the US and the EU have woken up to the reality how much the Chinese digital infrastructure is now blanketing those key markets. So China has been building this digital Silk Road across Asia, but also across Africa and Latin America.

And in many ways, it has been very difficult for the US and the E. U. to counter that Chinese influence. So many of these countries are developing countries. They need a path to digital development, and China is providing them one. And their infrastructure is pretty good. And it is affordable. And if the US and the EU cannot provide them an alternative, it is very hard to ask these countries to say no to Chinese technology infrastructure. And in many ways, even though the US and the E. U. have been very concerned that this Chinese infrastructure basically expands the surveillance empire of Beijing, and all the data, for instance, would be then funneled directly to the Chinese government, It's just not a first order concern for many of these countries.

So we can afford to worry about our data privacy, but there are many developing countries where, for instance, they have tremendous law enforcement needs and where the people are much more comfortable with surveillance cameras, if they believe that keeps them safe. And they said that I don't wake up every day to think about what happens to my privacy today.

So that's also a different conversation that you have that is taking place in the, in these markets on what does it mean for them to be part of the sort of Chinese empire, even if loose, loosely so and not subscribing necessarily even to the Chinese ideology. But also I do mention, I would want to mention Justin, that there is, the world is turning more authoritarian.

There are many authoritarian or authoritarian leaning countries that are very comfortable with the Chinese model and want to emulate it. And there's something that also makes the Chinese model attractive, is that even though it's hard for us to acknowledge in the democratic countries, China has shown to the world that you don't need to be free to innovate.

They have managed to create a thriving tech economy without those political freedoms. So many of these countries look at China and say, well, we can have it both. We can have growth. We can have innovation and We can have political control, and that is also an additional challenge for the US and the EU, then to persuade these countries to abandon collaboration with China and choose the US and EU instead.

Justin Hendrix:

So I am speaking to you just after having read the most recent Freedom on the Net report, which finds a 13th consecutive year of declines in Internet freedom. obviously against the backdrop of declines in democracy generally across the world. You've just brought this up, but in the battle of the techno democracies versus the techno autocracies, are the autocracies winning?

Is that the future?

Anu Bradford:

So it is my concern. That they have a possibility of winning unless the techno democracies can really consolidate a democratic front and provide an alternative view that resonates around the world. So, and there are a couple of things that I think it would take for the techno democracies to prevail.

So one is that it certainly would help if the US and the EU would overcome their differences. And rather than align their positions and jointly lead this coalition in a way that there is a cohesive vision among the techno democracies, it most likely would take the US to move closer. To the EU in terms of the adoption of a sort of rights driven regulatory model.

And I think in some ways the EU is now a little bit more willing to work with the US because initially this very stark way of of having a very sort of combative stance against China wasn't easy for the Europeans to follow. So the Europeans the economy is very tied to opportunities in China and the EU wasn't quite as Willing to take a hard line on China, but I think that China's refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the kind of political move that has really shifted the attitudes towards China in the EU as well.

So now that also seems to be more of a same conversation where the US and the EU are. better place to collaborate in terms of their position towards China as well. But also the US and the EU need to realize that they both are increasingly playing Beijing's game. They are pushing for more techno nationalists techno protections worldview.

Whereby the rest of the world knows that abandoning China and collaborating with the EU and US doesn't mean that they have fully open market and they can really engage fully with the economic opportunities in those markets. And that is also something that I think the US and the EU ought to be mindful of.

But Justin, if I may say that what really leaves me concerned is that the US and the EU have had a hard time showing that there is a liberal democratic way to govern the digital economy. So we've already talked about how difficult, how many difficulties there are for the US to actually legislate.

Nothing is coming out of the Congress, even though the public opinion is shifting to be more favorable on regulation. The Europeans are also having a very hard time enforcing their regulations, so they can regulate, but their enforcement record leaves much to be desired. At the same time, China can legislate, and if the Chinese Communist Party decides that it's time to force, then it is time to enforce, and they can also do that.

And that leaves me very worried that liberal democracy can be lost in one of two ways. So one is if the US and the EU lose their horizontal battle to China, but also if they lose their vertical battle to tech companies. And we need to ultimately concede that the digital economy can only be governed by the authoritarians like China or by the tech companies and that those are the real digital empires.

Justin Hendrix:

So on some level, what I hear is Perhaps the rapacious greed of Silicon Valley could end up being the kind of Achilles heel of the Western approach to tech could imperil the future or the vision of the future that maybe Western leaders would like to say is an alternative to China.

Anu Bradford:


I think that they can these tech companies can undermine democracy directly through their products and services. So if you are a platform for disinformation that then undermines democratic elections, obviously, that is a weapon that is striking directly at the political institutions that are at the core of our liberal democracies, but also then the fact that our governments haven't really found a way to show to the world that liberal democracy is effective in governing these companies.

I think it's harder then to tell the world that they ought to be following that model if they themselves cannot show that model is actually working in practice.

Justin Hendrix:

I want to just ask you about X factors that you might see coming in the near term that may change this picture. You've mentioned AI, the race to AI, of course some folks regard if one country gets to an artificial general intelligence or even a super intelligence first, that's the ultimate competitive advantage and we'll signal the end of perhaps this This conflict putting that aside assuming that's a maybe slightly fantastical or too far in the future.

Other things that might happen. We're in a very real scenario in the US right now where Donald Trump could once again become president. How would that change the kind of balance of powers amongst the digital empire?

Anu Bradford:

Yeah, so we actually don't see a major difference in the approach towards tech companies and digital economy between Democrats and Republicans. So, as you mentioned, President Biden has continued President Trump's trade war and tech war, and indeed, even doubled down in many ways. So the divided Congress doesn't seem to agree on anything, but they do agree that China.

is problem. And they agree that big tech is too powerful. But that doesn't mean that there's necessarily a cohesive legislative agenda that emerges from that principle consensus. But I think that the hard line against China will continue. I think what makes it probably what makes the difference, the policy is probably become more unpredictable.

So uncertainty. in the economy will probably grow even if we knew that generally the regime of export controls, investment restrictions will continue. We may see a less of a prospect for collaboration with other tech democracies. So president Trump doesn't have a track record from his past administration that he would have been a reliable partner for collaboration.

So we talked about earlier on the importance of US – EU cooperation, and that may unravel to some extent. And I think that concerns the Europeans a great deal. So even though now we see closer transatlantic alignment, we see productive conversation in Trade and Technology Council. That is an institution that was established.

To coordinate and mitigate some of the regulatory differences. And that kind of collaboration can become more challenging under, under president Trump.

Justin Hendrix:

Just one more question in this vein. I suppose there's a risk that now that the EU has got all of its ducks in a row with regard to regulation.

It's got privacy. It's got digital markets act. It's got digital services act. By the end of the year, it'll have the first big AI act in the world. What if it turns out this is a paper tiger that the enforcement's not there or that it's simply not enough to stand up to. the power that has concentrated in these large tech firms.

That's a real possibility. It seems to me that-- you've got Elon Musk kind of staring down Thierry Breton at the moment could be the case that ultimately the contradictions in the Digital Services Act between sort of regulation and on the one hand and speech and liberty on the other kind of unravel a little bit in that conflict.

What do you see happening there? Is that a possibility?

Anu Bradford:

I think it is a possibility, and I think that is a very dangerous possibility, but not entirely difficult to imagine. So the enforcement of the GDPR has been deficient, and I think the EU is well aware of that. It has also had unintended consequences, including then being relatively more costly to small companies that have had a hard time complying with the GDPR obligations.

So it has entrenched further the power of the big tech companies that can afford to comply with the European stringent privacy regulations. So I think one Big challenge has been that the European enforcement architecture has really relied on fines. And when you try to find these tech giants, that is just not enough because for these tech companies, they pay the fines.

They don't worry too much. It's the price of doing for doing business in the EU. But here the EU is now trying to change tack and do something quite different with the laws like the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. So, first of all, these two pieces of legislation that deal with content moderation, but also to the X anti regulation of competition in the marketplace, they are by design asymmetrical.

So they are targeting with greater obligations that are designed for the large tech companies. So the DMA is only for these digital gatekeepers. So this problem around the GDPR where the small companies were disproportionately affected should not be an issue with these legislations to the same extent.

They also move beyond just fines and they are trying to target these business models themselves. And that is an opportunity for the Europeans to say that we actually can entrench our goals into concrete market outcomes. We are now we have the tools to ask these companies to change the way they do business.

So if you have your Google Android phone, you need to basically be presented. a choice screen that you can choose which browser you want, which math application you want, and you are not immediately defaulted into Google's own ecosystem. So those are the ways that the Europeans are trying to redistribute power away from the big platforms and empower the users themselves.

But it is a big test case of whether this this new set of tools that the regulators have actually will then make a difference and if it doesn't, I think that really would erode the deterrence and legitimacy and the effectiveness of the European rights driven model. So the stakes are high and the European regulators have a great need to get this right.

Justin Hendrix:

You end the book by basically explaining the stakes again, that this is about the future, about what type of future we want to have, what type of society we want to have. It's always seemed to me that the arguments over tech policy are about this.

This is really what's underneath it all. Who gets to make the rules? How do we want to live? Who gets power? Who does not? How do we arrive at perhaps a better understanding of the alternative futures? In your view you've painted a picture here but I have a sense that this book is slightly pessimistic that the kind of Western liberal democratic order That will triumph that it won't continue to lose ground to a more perhaps oppressive and yet maybe very effective model in China.

Anu Bradford:

I probably wouldn't like to say that it's pessimistic, but I think it issues a warning or it's a call to action that it really tries to paint those different futures that are awaiting us and through that, impress it upon. The tech companies, the governments and individuals that we are making choices that are extremely consequential and our lives and societies will evolve in very different ways, depending on how we make those choices.

So my hope is that by really explaining the Stakes in how we design our digital societies. It will reinvigorate the legislators to say that we need to show that liberal democracy works, which means we really need to ramp up our efforts in legislating and in enforcing, and it really it engages the users of technology, the citizens to advocate for what is the kind of society that they want to be part of so that when we still have responsive democratic societies, That that feedback gets interwoven into the legislative ambition.

And also I think it is a message for tech companies that they are a key decision makers through their products and services. And I think they have a tremendous. Responsibility and ultimately I do hope that they take the legacy that they are leaving behind very seriously and would understand that ultimately there are certain decisions about society where they should not be comfortable just being the main decision makers, but they actively welcome the legislators to share that Stage with them and try to be good citizens as well as some of the main architects of our digital society.

So I'm not sure it's pessimistic. I think it is realistic and it warns us what happens if we just subscribe to this techno determinist view and let, for instance, AI revolution run its own course, as opposed to really taking agency in shaping what that force ought to look like.

Justin Hendrix:

This book is called Digital Empires, the Global Battle to Regulate Technology.

Excellent resource. I think for anybody that's listening to the tech policy press podcast, of course, and what I hope to use with my students as well. Anu Bradford, thank you so much for speaking to me about this.

Anu Bradford:

This was great. Really exciting conversation. So thank you for having me, Justin.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...