International Business Machines Corp. Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty joined a growing chorus of tech executives lambasting web platforms, like Google and Facebook, over their collection of user data and urged governments to target regulation at those companies.
Without naming company names, Rometty pointed to the “irresponsible handling of personal data by a few dominant consumer-facing platform companies” as the cause of a “trust crisis” between users and tech companies, according to an advanced copy of her remarks.
Rometty’s comments, given at a Brussels event with top EU officials Monday, echoed recent statements by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who in October slammed Silicon Valley rivals over their use of data, equating their services to “surveillance.”
The IBM chief continues her two-day visit to Brussels on Tuesday, meeting with the European Commission Vice-President in charge of jobs and growth, Jyrki Katainen. On Monday, she met with the EU’s privacy chief Vera Jourova and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and, at the event, appeared on a panel with Andrus Ansip, the commission’s Vice President for digital affairs.
The comments by the tech executives come as both Facebook and Alphabet’s Google are under intense scrutiny by lawmakers in the US and Europe over privacy breaches and election interference on their platforms.
IBM meanwhile has seen revenue decline since Rometty took the CEO role in 2012, largely due to falling sales in existing hardware, software and services offerings. She has since been trying to steer IBM toward more modern businesses, such as the cloud, artificial intelligence, and security software.
Seeking to separate IBM – which operates primarily at a business-to-business level – from the troubled tech companies, Rometty said governments should target regulation at consumer-facing web platforms, like social media firms and search engines.
“The power dynamic is very different in the business-to-business markets,” Rometty said. “Tackling the real problem means using a regulatory scalpel, not a sledgehammer, to avoid collateral damage that would hurt the wider, productive and more responsible parts of the digital economy.”
In particular, Rometty pushed for more measures around the transparency of artificial intelligence as well as controversial rules around platform liability.
Tech firms like Google and Facebook have typically pushed back on any plans to give platforms more legal liability over what people post or upload on their sites, arguing it could lead to restrictions on free speech if companies have to monitor what users upload.
“Dominant online platforms have more power to shape public opinion than newspapers or the television ever had, yet they face very little regulation or liability,” Rometty said. “On liability, new thinking is needed.”
Rometty called on the European Union to change laws that have previously handed web platforms immunity from what appears on their sites. The EU’s so-called e-commerce directive from 2000 was designed to boost innovation among young firms. The bloc has since introduced targeted measures giving tech companies liability over specific content, like ordering them to remove terror propaganda within one hour, but it’s yet to formally change the law.
Brussels has become eponymous in the tech world with tough digital rules, such as the EU’s strict GDPR privacy regulation, which came into force earlier this year.
Like Rometty, Cook also made his comments at an event in Brussels attended by top EU officials.
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