EU legislation targets big tech for hate speech and disinformation

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BRUSSELS – Big tech companies like Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta will need to more strictly monitor their platforms to better protect European users from hate speech, misinformation and other harmful online content under EU law. historic European legislation approved early on Saturday.

European Union officials reached the tentative agreement on the Digital Services Act after lengthy final negotiations that began on Friday. The law will also force tech companies to make it easier for users to report problems, ban online ads aimed at children, and empower regulators to punish non-compliance with billions in fines.

The Digital Services Act, half of an overhaul of the 27-nation bloc’s digital rulebook, is helping to cement Europe’s reputation as a global leader in efforts to curbing the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

“With the DSA, the days of big online platforms behaving as if they were ‘too big to care’ are coming to an end,” said Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market.

European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager added that “with today’s agreement, we are ensuring that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services may pose to society and consumers. citizens”.

The EU continues to set the global standard for reining in Big Tech

The law is the EU’s third major law targeting the tech industry, a notable contrast to the United States, where lobbyists representing Silicon Valley interests have largely been successful in keeping federal lawmakers at bay.

While the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have filed major antitrust suits against Google and Facebook, Congress remains politically divided on efforts to tackle competition, online privacy, misinformation and more.

New EU rules are expected to make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platforms’ algorithms.

The largest online platforms and search engines, defined as having more than 45 million users, will come under closer scrutiny.

Breton said they would have a lot of sticks to back up their laws, including “effective and deterrent” fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue, which for big tech companies, s would amount to billions of dollars. Repeat offenders could be banned from the EU, he said.

The agreement in principle has been reached between the European Parliament and the member states of the bloc. It still needs to be officially endorsed by these institutions, which is expected after the summer but should not pose a political problem. The rules will then not start to apply until 15 months after this approval, or on January 1, 2024, whichever is later.

“The DSA is nothing less than a paradigm shift in technology regulation. It is the first major attempt to establish rules and standards for algorithmic systems in digital media markets,” Ben said. Scott, a former technology policy adviser to Hillary Clinton who is now executive director of advocacy group Reset.

The need to regulate Big Tech more effectively became clearer after the 2016 US presidential election, when Russia used social media platforms to try to influence voters. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have promised to fight misinformation, but the problems only got worse. During the pandemic, health misinformation has flourished and once again companies have been slow to act, cracking down after years of allowing anti-vaccine lies thrive on their platforms.

Under EU law, governments could ask companies to remove a wide range of content that would be considered illegal, including material promoting terrorism, child sexual abuse, hate speech and commercial scams. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should provide users with tools to report such content in an “easy and efficient” way so that it can be quickly removed. Online marketplaces like Amazon should do the same for questionable products, such as counterfeit sneakers or dangerous toys.

These systems will be standardized to work the same on any online platform.

Germany’s justice minister said the rules would protect freedom of expression online by ensuring sites can be brought to review decisions to remove posts. At the same time, they will be required to prevent their platforms from being misused, Marco Buschmann said.

“Death threats, aggressive slurs and incitement to violence are not expressions of free speech but rather attacks on free and open speech,” he said.

Tech companies, which had been furiously lobbying Brussels to water down the legislation, reacted cautiously.

Twitter said it would review the rules “in detail” and supported “smart, forward-thinking regulation that balances the need to address online harm with protecting the open internet.”

TikTok said it is awaiting full details of the law, but “we support its goal of harmonizing the approach to online content issues and welcome the DSA’s emphasis on transparency as a way to show accountability.” “.

Google said it looked forward to “working with policymakers to get the remaining technical details to make sure the law works for everyone.” Amazon referenced a blog post from last year that said it welcomed measures that boost trust in online services. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The Digital Services Act prohibits advertisements aimed at minors, as well as advertisements based on users’ gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It also prohibits deceptive techniques companies use to trick people into doing things they didn’t intend to do, like signing up for services that are easy to accept but hard to decline.

To show that they are making progress in limiting these practices, tech companies should conduct annual risk assessments of their platforms.

Until now, regulators haven’t had access to the inner workings of Google, Facebook and other popular services. But under the new law, companies will have to be more transparent and provide information to regulators and independent researchers about content moderation efforts. This could mean, for example, that YouTube transmits data indicating whether its recommendation algorithm directed users to more Russian propaganda than normal.

To enforce the new rules, the EU Executive Commission would need to hire more than 200 new staff. To pay for this, tech companies will be charged a “monitoring fee”.

Experts said the new rules are likely to trigger copycat regulatory efforts from governments in other countries, while tech companies will also come under pressure to roll out the rules beyond EU borders.

“If Joe Biden is standing on the podium and saying ‘God damn it, why don’t American consumers deserve the same protections that Google and Facebook are giving European consumers?’ same rules” elsewhere, Scott said.

But they are unlikely to do so voluntarily, said Zach Meyers, senior fellow at the Center for European Reform think tank. There’s simply too much money at stake if a company like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is limited in how it can target advertising to specific groups of users.

“Big tech companies will strongly resist other countries adopting similar rules, and I can’t imagine companies voluntarily enforcing these rules outside the EU,” Meyers said.

The EU reached a separate agreement last month on its Digital Markets Acta law to limit the market power of tech giants and make them treat smaller rivals fairly.

And in 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation set the global standard for protecting data privacy, although it has been criticized for not being effective in changing the behavior of tech companies. A big part of the problem is that a company’s primary privacy regulator is in the country where its European headquarters are located, which for most tech companies is Ireland.

Irish regulators have opened dozens of data privacy inquiries, but have issued judgments on only a handful. Critics say the problem is a lack of staff, but the Irish regulator says the cases are complex and time-consuming.

EU officials say they have learned from this experience and will make the Commission the enforcement authority for the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.

Editor’s note: Facebook and Google are among NPR’s financial backers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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