Behind the European Union’s plan to rewrite the principles of on-line life

A woman working on her laptop in Paris on May 26, 2020. Photo by Arnaud Finistre / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect.

With autocratic regimes more aggressively restricting freedom of expression online, it is even more important for the European Union (EU) and the United States to come up with a positive, alternative model of online regulation, two European Commission policy officials said on Wednesday at 360 / Open Summit hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Prabhat Agarwal, Head of the Commission’s Digital Services and Platforms Unit, and Gerard de Graaf, Director for Digital Transformation in the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication Networks, Content and Technology, were the lead drafters of the Digital Services Act (DSA). The bill is a unique, comprehensive regulatory framework for digital services that the European Commission proposed to EU legislators in December. With the aim of making the Internet safer and at the same time protecting basic human rights and freedoms, the DSA takes on modern digital challenges from the moderation of content to transparent data reporting and supervision.

The DSA is currently being reviewed by the European Parliament and the European Council for revision with the aim of adopting it in early 2022. And its wide scope makes it “more than just an EU regulation; it’s a potential model and the only fully fledged democratic standard to engage with right now, ”said moderator Rose Jackson, director of the Democracy & Tech Policy Initiative at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Below are some of the highlights from their discussion.

What does the DSA do?

  • The DSA aims to protest users’ right to freedom of expression while giving them the opportunity to report illegal content, protecting their privacy, and allowing them to see why certain online ads or content are being shown to them said the framers. Authorities receive unprecedented amounts of data for better public oversight. And platforms will receive clearer liability instructions while facing only one point of contact for regulatory oversight: the EU as opposed to each of its 27 member states.
  • The proposed legislation builds on the existing EU E-Commerce Directive, strengthens liability protection for intermediary services such as hosting sites and caching services, and expands to new areas, with a common framework for enforcement and additional due diligence, the environment and human legal audits. This includes a “Good Samaritan” clause that protects platforms from liability as long as they make good faith efforts to remove illegal content quickly.
  • The e-commerce directive mainly focused on cloud infrastructures and web hosting services. DSA adds new categories for online platforms that cover marketplaces (such as app stores or sharing / gig economy platforms) as well as large social media sites. Infrastructure intermediaries such as domain registries or WLAN hotspots have the least regulatory responsibility, while online platforms are subject to increased scrutiny due to the size of their audience. “We are of course dealing with some very powerful platforms, some of which are powerful enough to set the rules of the game,” said de Graaf. “With so many companies and users relying on these platforms, it’s in [their] Interest in the competition working. ”

Design the “fire exits” of the digital world

  • By clarifying expectations as well as liability issues related to their content, platforms could benefit from the DSA, their authors said. “It is difficult to scale in Europe because Europe is fragmented“, Emphasized de Graaf. “The rules are not the same. We have twenty-seven member states. “Even small platforms that are successful in one state find it difficult to adapt to the individual rules of another:” You have to adapt your business model. You need to check what rules apply to [you], and that slows you down. And the internet is all about scalability and speed. “
  • Some human rights experts fear that further regulation could restrict freedom of expression. “This is not a tool for authoritarian regimes to dictate how people can express themselves online,” said Agarwal. “An analogy I use a lot is this This regulates the emergency exits, the alarm buttons, the security features that we would expect when you walk into a mall or concert hall. “Other European legislation defines what types of speech are legal and which are not, and bad actors will abuse regulations regardless of the safeguards in the law, said Agarwal:” One of the characteristics of authoritarian regimes is that they primarily disregard rights. “
  • Establishing the required robust data reporting is critical. “This kind of data is generated. So when they are abused by an authority, they leave a distinctive mark, ”said Agarwal. The transparency provisions could also significantly improve knowledge of user behavior on these platforms and enable independent researchers – usually housed in academic institutions – to produce novel studies and shape future governance based on data-driven insights.

A necessary conversation

  • The E-Commerce Directive was enacted in June 2000. As de Graaf noted, online life has changed significantly since then. In 2002, 9 percent of Europeans bought online; 70 percent are now doing this – and 40 percent of companies sell through online platforms. “Platforms have become much more important to our lives in terms of social media, in terms of marketplaces. They are also very important vehicles for small and medium-sized businesses in Europe to reach their customers, so now is the time to look at that framework, ”said de Graaf.
  • In 2018, there were almost 10,000 high-growth social and hosting service platforms in Europe. “Most of them are small,” said de Graaf. He pointed out that the current EU structure made it difficult for them to grow, citing Spotify as an example. “How did it grow? It started in Europe, then it went to the USA. It was scaled in the US and then came back to Europe. “
  • But the sheer size of platforms like Facebook – with 423 million monthly users in Europe out of a population of around 750 million – illustrates the need to create a framework that is versatile enough to effectively regulate platforms both large and small. “Very large” online platforms, which are defined to reach 45 million users (or 10 percent of the EU population), are subject to more obligations under the proposed DSA. They must have compliance officers, independent audits, improved data access, and improved transparency reports, among other things. “It’s an asymmetrical commitment,” said de Graaf. “When you are in a user and consumer centric position, like a social media company, you have more responsibility. These duties of care are the hard core of the Digital Services Act. “

Nick Fouriezos is an Atlanta-based writer with fonts from every state and six continents. Follow him on Twitter @ nick4iezos.

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Behind the European Union's plan to rewrite the rules of online life

Top tech journalists attended the 360 ​​/ Open Summit, hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, to discuss how technology platforms can improve accountability and transparency

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