After Brexit Vote, U.S. Tech Giants Face Splintered Digital Future in Europe

Google and Facebook may grapple with multiple data privacy rules. EU may be tougher on U.S. tech without U.K. influence.

How Silicon Valley May Be Impacted by the Brexit Vote

U.S. technology businesses like Alphabet Inc. and Facebook Inc. toil to make the real world as borderless and global as the digital worlds they create. The physical version just got a lot messier in Europe, the second-largest market for these giant companies.

Britain voted on Thursday to leave the European Union, fracturing what was slowly becoming a single digital market into potentially two—or possibly more—jurisdictions for technology issues ranging from data privacy, competition, tax and recruiting.

"After the vote in the U.K., we are obviously entering a moment of some uncertainty and concern," Facebook public policy executive Joel Kaplan said at the Computer and Communications Industry Association's Transatlantic Internet Policy Reception in Washington on Monday. 

Exhibit one in the new European reality for U.S. tech giants is data privacy, an area where Facebook has already sparred with regulators. These companies worked hard to get a single set of rules for data protection and privacy across the region. After the U.K. leaves, the country will likely have to create its own set of privacy regulations, potentially driving up compliance costs associated with moving consumer information across borders and complicating the operation of data centers.

That could influence consumer data collection used in advertising on Alphabet's Google search engine and Facebook's social media pages, the shipment of a book ordered from a retailer on Amazon.com Inc.'s site in Germany to a shopper in the U.K., or the management of data centers that power Microsoft Corp.'s cloud computing services.

Take the EU's new General Data Protection Regulation, a sweeping legal framework approved in April and set to take effect in May 2018. When the U.K. leaves, GDPR will no longer apply to the country. Experts expect the U.K. to adopt similar rules to GDPR in its stead, though a separate set of rules—no matter how similar—will cause headaches for U.S. tech companies seeking simplicity as they operate across Europe.

"They want one law, one framework, one consistent approach," said Eduardo Ustaran, a London-based lawyer at Hogan Lovells LLP specializing in privacy law. "The lack of harmonization makes more cost than regulation itself."

Ustaran said he's been trying to calm business clients down since the vote. "There is very much a sense of panic or at least concern," he said.

If the U.K. wants to take part in the free flow of data across European borders after leaving the Union, it will have to adopt data-protection standards that the EU deems "adequate" in meeting the same standards as GDPR. The U.K. Information Commissioner's Office, which oversees the country's data processing, said Friday that "international consistency around data protection laws and rights is crucial, both to businesses and organisations, and to consumers and citizens."

Unless the U.K. harmonizes with the new EU rules, U.S. companies may lose the ability to process European consumer data in the U.K., unless they adopt policies suggested by the EU or approved by an EU data protection authority. This could impact companies that want to use data centers in the U.K.—even as backups if their data centers in other EU countries go down. 

Cloud-computing businesses, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, are particularly vulnerable to the complications of a split regulatory region. Cloud companies function more efficiently when they can easily shift loads from one data center to another. Restricting the types of data that can be stored in specific locations hampers that flexibility.

"A lot of companies are saying, 'Help. We don't know what to do. We're completely dependent on free flow of data,'" said Todd Ruback, chief privacy officer at Ghostery, which helps companies navigate privacy laws.

However, Brexit could be an opportunity for the U.K. to position itself as an alternative to the rest of Europe, especially since GDPR is "very complicated, with a ton of legalese," said Dana Simberkoff, chief compliance officer at compliance and governance software company AvePoint. If the U.K. adopts its own regulations that meet GDPR standards but make compliance simpler, the country "could have an amazing opportunity" to be more business-friendly. "What businesses want is clarity, and to a certain extent, that is not what the GDPR delivers," Simberkoff said.

Brexit is less worrying, or the specific impact is so far unknown, when it comes to other Europe issues close to U.S. technology companies' hearts, such as antitrust enforcement, a tax crackdown and the quest for engineering talent across the region. But one thing is clear: The U.K. has been more favorable to U.S. technology interests, and without that influence, nations like France and Germany, which are less aligned with the U.S., are likely to take greater control of EU policy.

"That will shift the balance of power more towards countries where the state plays a bigger role," said James Waterworth, European vice president for the CCIA, which lobbies for Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other U.S. tech companies. "That is not the ideal approach for fast-moving sectors like the high-technology and internet sectors."

Google will be especially hard-hit, said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley attorney who has represented Google rivals that have complained about the company to EU antitrust authorities. Google has invested heavily in U.K. operations and tried to build relationships with the government of out-going U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to increase its political clout in the region, he noted. "Their ploy to control the European Union through influence in Britain has been wiped out," Reback said.

Google declined to comment on the impact of Brexit, as did Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. 

Google recently constructed a new London headquarters, in part because of the British capital's status as a hub for ambitious professionals from across Europe. When the U.K. leaves the free trade bloc, companies may lose the ability to move employees freely around the region without separate visas. "That would harm firms that need to move talent around if it came to pass," Waterworth said, while noting it's too early to tell how harmful this will be. 

For now, Google's biggest advertising clients continue to have a major presence in London, which supports the need for the search giant's presence there, said Andy McLoughlin, a partner at SoftTech VC in California, who is originally from Leicester, England. "The question mark is 15 to 20 years from now: Has London been unseated as the financial and startup center for Europe?" he said.

—With Bradley Saacks, Jeremy Kahn, and Spencer Soper

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