London: Taking aim at hate speech, disinformation, and other harmful content online, the European Union is nearing agreement on a sweeping law that would force big tech companies to police themselves harder, make it easier for users to flag problems, and empower regulators to punish noncompliance with billions in fines.
EU officials were negotiating Friday over the final details of the Digital Services Act, which would overhaul the 27-nation bloc’s digital rulebook and cement its position as the global leader in reining in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms, such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
The new rules, which are designed to protect internet users and their “fundamental rights online”, would make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platforms’ algorithms.
“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.
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Once agreed to in principle, the law would still need to be approved by the European Parliament and European Council, though that is not expected to be a major hurdle. It has not been decided when the law would go into effect.
Negotiators were hoping to hammer out a deal before the end of Friday, ahead of French elections Sunday. A new French government could stake out different positions on digital content.
Under the new law, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would have to give users tools to flag things like hate speech in an “easy and effective way” so that it can be swiftly removed. Online marketplaces like Amazon would have to do the same for dodgy products, such as counterfeit sneakers or unsafe toys.
These systems will be standardised so that they will work the same way on any online platform.
That means “any national authority will be able to request that illegal content is removed, regardless of where the platform is established in Europe,” the EU’s single market commissioner, Thierry Breton, said on Twitter.
Companies that violate the rules face fines amounting to as much as 6% of their annual global revenue, which for tech giants would mean billions of dollars. Repeat offenders could be banned from the EU market.
Europe is far ahead of the United States in drawing up regulations for tech giants to force them to protect people from harmful content that proliferates online.
The tech giants have been lobbying furiously in Brussels to water down the EU rules. Google and Twitter declined to comment. Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment. Amazon referred to a blog post from last year that said it welcomed measures that enhance trust in online services and improve the experience of customers and businesses in Europe.
The Digital Services Act also includes measures to better protect children by banning advertising targeted at minors. Online ads targeted to users based on their gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation would also be prohibited.
There also would be a ban on so-called dark patterns — deceptive techniques to nudge users into doing things they didn’t intend to, such as sign-up for services that are easy to opt into, but hard to decline.
Tech companies would have to carry out annual risk assessments on illegal content, disinformation and other harmful information and then report back on their progress.
Up until now, regulators have had no access to the inner workings at Google, Facebook and other popular services. But under the new law, the companies will have to be more transparent and provide information to regulators and independent researchers on content-moderation efforts.
This could mean, for example, making YouTube turn over data on whether its recommendation algorithm has been directing users to more Russian propaganda than normal.
To enforce the new rules, the European Commission is expected to hire more than 200 new staffers. To pay for it, tech companies will be charged a “supervisory fee”, which could be up to 0.1% of their annual global net income, depending on the negotiations.
This law would cement Europe’s role as the global pacesetter for tech regulations. Scott said the new rules will likely spark copycat regulatory efforts by governments in other countries, while tech companies will also face pressure to roll out the rules beyond the EU’s borders.
“If Joe Biden stands at the podium and says By golly, why don’t American consumers deserve the same protections that Google and Facebook are giving to Europe consumers,’ it’s going to be difficult for those companies to deny the application of the same rules” elsewhere, he said.
The EU reached a separate agreement last month on its so-called Digital Markets Act, a law aimed at reining in the market power of tech giants and making them treat smaller rivals fairly.
The EU’s earlier groundbreaking law — the General Data Protection Regulation — set the global standard for data privacy protection, though it has faced criticism for not being effective at changing the behaviour of tech companies. Much of the problem with GDPR centers on the fact that a company’s lead privacy regulator is in the country where its European head office is located, which for most tech companies is Ireland.
Irish regulators have opened dozens of investigations into Facebook, Google, and other Silicon Valley companies since GDPR took effect in 2018, but have only issued judgements for a handful. Critics say the problem is understaffing but the Irish regulator says the cases are complex and time-consuming.
EU officials have learned from that experience and will make the bloc’s executive Commission the enforcer for the DSA and DMA.