Europe's New Rules to Curb Big Tech Seek to Transform Messaging Apps

The Digital Markets Act is the EU's attempt to even the playing field among tech companies, regardless of size.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

Europe's new digital rules will impact tech giants.

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Europe reached a key milestone Thursday in the renegotiation of its rules governing the tech industry, announcing agreement on the upcoming Digital Markets Act between the European Parliament and EU member states. The legislation amounts to an overhaul of antitrust rules in Europe and will give the EU more power to rein tech giants.

The foremost example of this is the approach to messaging apps. The DMA will require companies with messaging apps to make them interoperable. This includes the biggest messaging apps in the world, such as Meta's WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and Apple's iMessage. Meta and Apple will be obliged to ensure people using these services can exchange messages, photos and videos among all messaging apps, both big and small.

This could pose a complex tech challenge for companies, but they have a strong incentive to comply. If they break Europe's upcoming rules, they could be fined up to 10% of their global annual revenue, jumping to 20% for repeated infringements. The size of the fines reflects the fact that the EU is "serious about this common endeavour," Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said in a statement.

The aim of the Digital Markets Act is to ensure an equal and level playing field among tech companies that want to compete in the EU in order to ensure that European citizens have the benefit of choice. 

"What we want is simple: Fair markets also in digital," European Competition Commissioner Margethe Vestager said in a statement. "We are now taking a huge step forward to get there -- that markets are fair, open and contestable."

But the impact of the legislation will extend far beyond benefitting European consumers and smaller tech businesses operating in the region. As countries around the world, including the US, continue their own efforts to regulate Big Tech, Europe's early intervention creates a model for others to either follow or reject.

Of particular interest to lawmakers in the US will be how the DMA regulates "gatekeepers" -- a term used to describe the biggest and most powerful technology companies. While the DMA sets the rules for all tech companies competing in the EU to follow, gatekeeper companies must follow additional rules because they are "most prone to unfair business practices," according to an EU press release.

The DMA sets out a definition of gatekeepers as companies with a market capitalization of at least 75 billion euro (about $83 million) or an annual turnover of 7.5 billion euros, and additionally must provide certain services such as browsers, messengers or social media, which have at least 45 million monthly users in the EU and 10,000 annual business users. This extends to companies largely based in the US, including Apple, Meta, Amazon and Google.

Some of the obligations of gatekeepers include:

  • Allowing services provided by third parties (messaging apps, for example) to interoperate with their own.
  • Not blocking users from uninstalling any preinstalled software or apps.
  • Not restricting their users from accessing services that they may have acquired outside of the gatekeeper platform.
  • Providing companies advertising on their platforms access to performance measuring tools.
  • Providing their business users with access to the data generated by their activities.

"The Digital Markets Act puts an end to the ever-increasing dominance of Big Tech companies," Andreas Schwab, the rapporteur from Parliament's Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, said in a statement. "From now on, they must show that they also allow for fair competition on the internet."

Thursday's agreement is an important milestone, but the legislation still needs to be passed. Passing legislation in Europe is a complex and time-consuming process because it must be agreed upon by the executive branch of government, the European Commission, the Council, which consists of representatives from member states, and the European Parliament, which is made up of elected representatives from across the continent.

After the legislation is been approved by the Council and the Parliament, the Commission expects it to come into effect around October. Companies running complex messaging apps are likely to be given a grace period to ensure their interoperability.

In the meantime, tech giants will also be anticipating the sister legislation to the Digital Markets Act, known as the Digital Services Act. This specifically deals with the regulation of content, including disinformation and advertising. 

Meta and Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.