The content of large tech companies, like Google and Meta, will be more tightly regulated under a new European Union law that received provisional approval Saturday.
Among the provisions of the Digital Services Act approved in an agreement between the European Council and European Parliament are transparency measures on the algorithms used by online platforms and services to recommend content and products to users.
“Platforms should be transparent about their content moderation decisions, prevent dangerous disinformation from going viral and avoid unsafe products being offered on market places,” Executive Vice-President for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
“With today’s agreement we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services can pose to society and citizens,” she added.
However, Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a research and public policy organization in Washington, D.C. noted that it remains to be seen exactly how the EU will implement some of the new law’s requirements.
“It’s possible that companies like Google and Meta are already meeting the DSA’s transparency requirements for ‘recommender systems’ under their existing disclosures to users,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“And these companies have also made progress in the past few years in terms of better explaining to users how they use their information and how their platforms work, such as ad transparency and ad library,” he added.
Focus on Big Tech
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen explained in a statement that the DSA will upgrade the ground rules for all online services in the EU.
“It will ensure that the online environment remains a safe space, safeguarding freedom of expression and opportunities for digital businesses,” she said. “It gives practical effect to the principle that what is illegal offline, should be illegal online. The greater the size, the greater the responsibilities of online platforms.”
According to the European Council, the obligations introduced in the new law are proportionate to the nature of the services concerned and tailored to the number of users. Very large online platforms and very large online search engines — defined as services with more than 45 million active monthly users — will be subject to more stringent requirements.
To safeguard the development of start-ups and smaller enterprises in the internal market, the council continued, micro and small enterprises with under 45 million monthly active users in the EU will be exempted from certain new obligations.
“With the DSA, the time of big online platforms behaving like they are ‘too big to care’ is coming to an end,” Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said in a statement.
Castro, though, maintained that the EU is making a mistake by focusing so much on the largest tech companies. “Smaller firms have a significant impact on consumers as well, and the largest companies are often the ones with the most resources and commitment to addressing harms,” he said.
Drag on Innovation?
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story, but in a blog written by Karan Bhatia, vice president for global public affairs and government relations, posted in October, the company warned, “While we support the ambition of the DSA to create clear rules for the next 20 years that support economic growth, we worry that the new rules may instead slow economic recovery.”
“They would prevent global technology companies like Google from building innovative digital tools like the ones that people have used through lockdown — and that will help European businesses rebuild their operations,” Bhatia wrote. “That would be a missed opportunity for Europe as it looks to the post-Covid future.”
In addition to algorithm transparency, other provisions empowering users and society include:
- The possibility to challenge platforms’ content moderation decisions and seek redress, either via an out-of-court dispute mechanism or judicial redress; and
- Access to vetted researchers to the key data of the largest platforms and provision of access to NGOs to public data to provide more insight into how online risks evolve.
Explosion of Public Scrutiny
“Even more impactful than making more information transparent about their algorithms is going to be the researcher data access provision,” observed Alex Engler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
“There’s only so much you can learn by telling people something broad about a complicated issue as the interaction between an algorithm and millions of people who use it on a daily basis, but when you let professional researchers study all of that , they can come away with much more nuanced, specific understanding of what’s going on,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Did a policy change lead to more disinformation? What are the mental health impacts of using social media?” he asked. “In those areas, we’ll see the most public scrutiny into large online platforms that the world has ever seen. Without any doubt, this will fundamentally change the level of public knowledge about these platforms.”
He explained that the DSA requires independent groups to validate what the companies are saying. “That gives them a lot less room to completely manipulate and hide the harms on their platforms,” he said.
He discounted concerns about the harm that opening algorithms to the public could have on the companies’ competitive edge.
“The competitive advantage of these companies comes more from their user base than the algorithms themselves,” he contended. “Facebook could tell me exactly how their algorithm works, and I wouldn’t be able to replicate the site because I don’t have billions of people coming to my website every day.”
Not Leaving EU
“The DSA is a significant piece of legislation, but it is unlikely to dramatically change the internet,” Castro noted.
“It imposes a number of new obligations on large online platforms, however, none of the rules are so onerous that large tech companies will leave the European market,” he added.
“A 450 million person market among the wealthiest countries in the world?” Engler asked. “I think the tech companies will comply with the new law.”
“These requirements are not so invasive that these companies won’t be able to make money anymore,” he said, “so I would be very surprised to see them leave.”