Fri. Nov 6th, 2020
from the but-massive-lobbying-and-dirty-tricks-will-soon-fix-that dept

By Glyn Moody

The EU is now starting to work in earnest on what is likely to be its most important new law for the online world, the Digital Services Act (DSA). Techdirt wrote about this last year when the European Commission started sketching out (bad) ideas for the new law. The basic impetus for the DSA is to replace the EU’s e-Commerce Directive, which was passed 20 years ago and is clearly in need of an update. As the European Commission’s page on the DSA explains, there are two core elements:

First, the Commission would propose clear rules framing the responsibilities of digital services to address the risks faced by their users and to protect their rights. The legal obligations would ensure a modern system of cooperation for the supervision of platforms and guarantee effective enforcement.

Second, the Digital Services Act package would propose ex ante rules covering large online platforms acting as gatekeepers, which now set the rules of the game for their users and their competitors. The initiative should ensure that those platforms behave fairly and can be challenged by new entrants and existing competitors, so that consumers have the widest choice and the Single Market remains competitive and open to innovations.

Those aims mean that the DSA touches on several of the most contentious issues in the online world, such as the introduction of mandatory pan-European rules for tackling online hate speech and disinformation, and efforts to control platforms that are “gatekeepers” — basically US companies like Google and Facebook. In other words, the DSA is going to be important, and not just for the EU. One of the key players in the drafting of the DSA is the European Parliament. The good news is that in a series of votes MEPs have made clear that they want protection for key human rights to be an integral part of the new law.

The votes concerned reports from three of the Parliament’s specialist committees: those for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, Legal Affairs, and Civil Liberties (pdf). The three reports are couched in a rather impenetrable EU-speak; fortunately, the European Parliament has put out a press release on the votes that provides a more comprehensible summary of the three reports. The European Parliament is quite open about what the EU hopes to achieve with the DSA: “With the upcoming package, the European Union aims to shape the digital economy at EU level as well as setting the standards for the rest of the world, as it did with data protection.” One of the priorities of the DSA is tackling illegal content online. On this, MEPs say:

A binding “notice-and-action” mechanism must be set up so that users can notify online intermediaries about potentially illegal online content or activities. This would help online intermediaries to react quickly and be more transparent regarding the actions they have taken on potentially illegal content. Users should be able to seek redress through a national dispute settlement body.

The European Parliament wants a distinction made between illegal content and harmful content, with a legal liability only for the former. MEPs say that there should be no general monitoring of users, and that platforms should not use upload filters for controlling harmful or illegal content: “The final decision on whether content is legal or not should instead be taken by an independent judiciary and not by private undertakings”. It’s hard to square that with the awful Article 17 of the EU Copyright Directive, which inevitably requires precisely this kind of upload filter to block allegedly infringing content. MEPs say that harmful content should be dealt with through “enhanced transparency obligations and by helping citizens to acquire media and digital literacy regarding the dissemination of such content.” According to the European Parliament, another priority of the DSA should be enhancing consumer protection and user safety:

Platforms and online intermediation services will need to get better at detecting and taking down false claims and tackling rogue traders, e.g. those selling false medical equipment or dangerous products online, as happened during the COVID-19 outbreak.

MEPs also call for a new “Know Your Business Customer” principle to be introduced, requiring platforms to check and stop fraudulent companies using their services to sell their illegal and unsafe products and content.

More controversial is a call for rules to prevent — not merely remedy — what MEPs called “market failures by big platforms”. The stated aim is to open up markets to new entrants. Some of the most striking ideas to emerge from the reports are: to allow online users to opt out of content curation, to be informed if a service is enabled by AI, and to ban microtargeted advertising:

Targeted advertising must be regulated more strictly in favour of less intrusive, contextualised forms of advertising that require less data and do not depend on previous user interaction with content. MEPs also call on the Commission to further assess options for regulating targeted advertising, including a phase-out leading to a ban.

As Techdirt has noted, such targeted advertising doesn’t really seem to bring much in the way of benefit to advertisers, but certainly causes people to be tracked relentlessly, and huge amounts of personal information to be gathered. Getting rid of it in the EU could encourage companies to re-think their advertising strategies globally, just as the GDPR has had a big knock-on effect on data protection everywhere. That would be welcome, as would a move to enshrine in the DSA a right to use digital services anonymously “whenever possible”. Adding a right to strong encryption without backdoors would be even better: at the moment, one report simply “Stresses the importance to apply effective end-to-end encryption to data”.

Two of the reports approved by the European Parliament are what are known as “legislative initiatives” (PDF). Although not binding on the European Commission, such initiatives require a much fuller response if any of the proposed ideas are rejected. This gives the European Parliament’s ideas more chance of making it into the final text of the DSA. Against that, some of the most powerful companies in the world will be deeply affected by the EU’s new law, which guarantees years of fierce lobbying and dirty tricks, as the dispiriting experience of the Copyright Directive demonstrated.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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