Chennai: Big tech companies like Google and Facebook parent Meta will have to police their platforms more strictly to better protect European users from hate speech, disinformation and other harmful online content under landmark EU legislation approved last week. EU officials clinched the agreement in principle on the Digital Services Act after lengthy final negotiations that began Friday. The law will also force tech companies to make it easier for users to flag problems, ban online ads aimed at kids and empower regulators to punish non-compliance with billions in fines.
The Digital Services Act, one half of an overhaul for the 27-nation bloc’s digital rulebook, helps cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms. “With the DSA, the time of big online platforms behaving like they are ‘too big to care’ is coming to an end,” said EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. EU Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager added that “with today’s agreement we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services can pose to society and citizens.” The act is the EU’s third significant law targeting the tech industry, a notable contrast with the U.S., where lobbyists representing Silicon Valley’s interests have largely succeeded in keeping federal lawmakers at bay. While the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission have filed major antitrust actions against Google and Facebook, Congress remains politically divided on efforts to address competition, online privacy, disinformation and more.
The EU’s new rules should make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platforms’ algorithms. The biggest online platforms and search engines, defined as having more than 45 million users, will face extra scrutiny. Breton said they will have plenty of stick to back up their laws, including “effective and dissuasive” fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue, which for big tech companies would amount to billions of dollars. Repeat offenders could be banned from the EU, he said.
The tentative agreement was reached between the EU parliament and the bloc’s member states. It still needs to be officially rubber-stamped by those institutions, which is expected after summer but should pose no political problem. The rules then won’t start applying until 15 months after that approval, or Jan. 1, 2024, whichever is later.
“The DSA is nothing short of a paradigm shift in tech regulation. It’s the first major attempt to set rules and standards for algorithmic systems in digital media markets,” said Ben Scott, a former tech policy advisor to Hillary Clinton who’s now executive director of advocacy group Reset. The need to regulate Big Tech more effectively came into sharper focus after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russia used social media platforms to try to influence voters. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter promised to crack down on disinformation, but the problems have only worsened. During the pandemic, health misinformation blossomed and again the companies were slow to act, cracking down after years of allowing anti-vaccine falsehoods to thrive on their platforms.
Under the EU law, governments would be able to ask companies take down a wide range of content that would be deemed illegal, including material that promotes terrorism, child sexual abuse, hate speech and commercial scams. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would have to give users tools to flag such content in an “easy and effective way” so that it can be swiftly removed.