The European Parliament and the European Council reach an agreement to approve the amendments contained in the Digital Services Act (DSA, for its acronym in English) aimed at subjecting large technology companies to a increased responsibility for the illegal content that is disseminated on its platforms and services.
The approval has concluded in the early hours of Saturday in Brussels after more than 16 hours of debate on the measures contained in the DSA. This law is pioneering, as it is expressly directed at the large Internet companies that act as intermediaries. In turn, it allows governments to supervise and control what happens or could happen in them.
“These new rules will protect Internet users,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), welcoming the agreement. “What is illegal outside the network will also be illegal inside it in Europe.”
The DSA is made up of several amendments aimed at protecting the privacy of its users, increasing the transparency of social network algorithms, protecting minors, and, as the most significant novelty, providing the European Union and all member states with the possibility of supervise both the operation of social networks and the content that is disseminated on them.
The European Union will have access to algorithms used by large online platforms (The DSA considers a large online platform to be one with more than 45 million active users per month). In other words, all EU Member States will be able to know exactly how the algorithms they use to serve content that increases the user’s time within the application work.
Both Facebook and Google and the like will be obliged to offer clear, fast and concise systems that encourage users to report illegal content within the platform. They will have to remove it quickly, or face record fines, as the amount will be based on the percentage of the company’s global profits, and not just from its business in Europe.
Victims of cyber violence will be especially protected against the dissemination of content without their permission (known as revenge porn), and social networks will have to remove it immediately. This immediacy will require a greater investment in moderation equipment, since the artificial intelligence algorithms cannot know if the photographs or videos have been disseminated with the consent of the person appearing in them.
More transparency for users… and for governments
Any large service or social network that uses a system that recommends content or orders it by user preferences must also offer an option that does not take into account their preferences. That is, Instagram will have to recommend things that you might like without being able to ask you what you like. It would be like going to ask the bookseller to recommend a book but without telling him what you like or what books you enjoyed reading; you remain silent and demand that I recommend something good to you with the help of infused science. All this doesn’t make any sense. So, for practical purposes, social networks will resort to offering chronological ordering systems alongside the machine learning algorithms they currently employ. The key is that there will be the option to bypass the algorithm; but on social networks like TikTok this again makes no sense: it undermines the very purpose of the service.
It will be forbidden for the different platforms to try to manipulate the decisions of their users with “dark tactics” within their services, such as using one button larger than another as it suits the company when granting permissions to process their data. In turn, it will be mandatory for the service cancellation process to be as fast and simple as the subscription process.
Any platform accessible to minors must offer a special place without targeted advertising of any kind for them. It will not be allowed to collect any information about the minor’s usage preferences to create an advertising profile of the minor.
Although the politicians involved in the approval of the DSA talk about protecting the citizen and attacking illegal content on the Internet, several amendments have been approved aimed at eliminating content that is not necessarily illegal.
The big social networks and search engines such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc. they will have to comply with stricter obligations, commensurate with the “significant risks they pose as platforms for illegal and harmful content, including disinformation”. These social networks will be obliged to carry out an analysis of the possible risks generated by their services and try to tackle them under the supervision of the EC according to these criteria:
- Dissemination of illegal content
- Adverse effects for Fundamental Rights.
- Manipulation through services to undermine or disrupt both democratic processes and public safety.
- Possible adverse effects on minors or on the mental health of adults.
Although the DSA begins by talking about “protecting the rights of freedom of expression” and “removing illegal content”, one of the approved amendments gives the EU the right to activate mechanisms to censor or minimize the dissemination of any information that is considered harmful or detrimental. It is a response mechanism to certain crises that would be implemented for three months if the Commission deems it appropriate. An example is cited in the context of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the measure taken to ban the dissemination of propaganda by Russian state media within the member states.
“A legal basis is given to the actions carried out by the Commission regarding disinformation during the COVID pandemic and Russian propaganda in the invasion of Ukraine. And in practice, it offers the Commission and the Governments indirect censorship tools beyond those 3 months,” says Borja Adsuara, a lawyer and expert in digital law, who considers the measure “very dangerous.”
The amendment offers a legal resource to be able to act quickly and forcefully on the dissemination of information contrary to collective well-being, according to the Union’s criteria. But, basically, “It is an indirect censorship of the Governments, in which they are not going to have to dirty their hands,” says Adsuara. “Now they only have to tell social networks what they want to delete.”
The crisis caused by the COVID virus sparked a public debate about the line between freedom of expression and public health. The DSA provides tools to restrict the dissemination of content that is not illegal, such as skepticism about the contingency measures adopted by the different governments during this health crisis. It is necessary to remember the debate that sparked the Show by Joe Rogan on the matter: debate under the protection of the constitution or dangerous disinformation?
They all think of the hate speech of those who do not think like them; but they do not think that if we give them the power to censor social networks, they will use it against everyone whenever they want. If they did it to Donald Trump when he was still President of the United States, what will they not do against the rest of the mortals?
Next steps after approval
The text needs to be finalized at a technical level and verified by legal linguists, before Parliament and Council give their formal approval. Once this process is complete, it will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the EU and the rules will start to apply 15 months later.
From May 23-27, a delegation from Parliament’s Internal Market Committee will visit the headquarters of several companies (Meta, Google, Apple and others) in Silicon Valley to discuss the Digital Services Act package in person, as well as other digital legislation in preparation, and listen to the position of American companies.
It is estimated that this regulation will come into force at the beginning of 2024, and applications such as Facebook or Twitter must be prepared or face record fines.
In the United States, the Democratic Party advocates breaking the shield that protects social networks as simple providers thanks to the First Amendment and Section 230, and adopting a regulation that controls the dissemination of certain information that could be harmful “to the democracy,” Barack Obama said Thursday in a speech at Stanford University. The Republican Party, however, is taking an opposite stance. Its leaders assure that the problem is to censor alternative points of view to the government’s opinion, and they see Elon Musk as his great ally after declaring that he wants to buy Twitter “to free it” and defend freedom of expression. For Democrats, this freedom means disinforming and attacking democracy without facing any consequences.