With interinstitutional negotiations on the Digital Services Act (DSA) underway, major European consumer lobby BEUC is pushing for better protection against dangerous products on online marketplaces and for strong provisions on targeted advertising and the manipulation of users.
Consumer protection is at the core of the position of MEPs who are defending the ambitious changes they have made to the European Commission’s original proposal. The European Parliament and the Council now need to agree on a compromise text of this groundbreaking legislation that aims to regulate tech giants and provide users and businesses with a safer and fairer digital environment, but tough negotiations lie ahead.
On 20 January, a significant majority of MEPs voted in favour of the DSA. Their vote was also cast in favour of a series of amendments that strengthen obligations for online platforms and provide additional protection for users against manipulation and illegal content. That vote put the European Parliament at odds with Member States‘ position from November, which stuck more closely to the European Commission’s original proposal.
Danish centre-left MEP Christel Schaldemose, who is leading the DSA negotiations for the Parliament, has said MEPs want significant improvements to the legislation. This legislation is too important, she has argued, to settle for less.
“We will do whatever we can to push for better consumer protection, better choices for the recipient of services, avoid over-removal of legal content and ensure new opportunities for businesses in the EU,” Schaldemose told MEPs following the first round of talks with the Council and Commission representatives on 7 February.
Margarethe Vestager, the Commissioner for Competition who has been leading the EU’s efforts to regulate big tech companies together with Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for the Internal Market, said after the trilogue that while the three institutions agreed on fundamentals, such as the principle that ‘what is illegal offline should be illegal online’, there was a lot of work ahead.
To target or not to target
Targeted advertising – allowing marketers to present consumers with ads that reflect their online traits, interests, and shopping preferences – is set to be a key bone of contention. After months of debate, during which some MEPs considered proposing a complete ban on the practice, the lawmakers agreed to back a ban on targeted ads which are based on the personal data of minors.
The MEPs also agreed, with a slim majority, to ban the use of sensitive data such as sexual orientation or political opinions for targeted ads, following last-minute amendments by centre-left MEPs from the ‘Tracking-Free Ads Coalition’.
The proposed restrictions have been criticised by politicians and businesses who say it will damage ad-supported sectors, in particular the media. While the German Green shadow rapporteur, Alexandra Geese, hailed the late amendments as a groundbreaking success, the Swedish centre-right shadow Arba Kokalari did not support them.
In contrast to the Parliament, the Council did not address targeted advertising in its position on the DSA. France’s Secretary of State for Digital Cédric O said on behalf of the Presidency of the Council that ministers do not have a common position on the issue, which according to plays into the hands of the MEPs whose discussions created a ‘momentum’. Cédric O however said that he expected difficult discussions since the topic touches on the complex issue of privacy.
More fairness, less manipulation
MEPs have also proposed stronger protection of online users against covert manipulative techniques of platforms. They have argued that refusing so-called cookies should be as simple as giving consent, and users should also be able to ban websites from using targeted advertising that uses their personal data with a single click in their browser.
MEPs want to give users more choice on the algorithms that decide what content they see, and to require large platforms to provide at least one alternative system for recommending content that is not based on user profiling. The lawmakers also want to give users more options to use and pay for online services anonymously.
None of these additions was included in the Council’s version of the text. It is therefore not clear what its position will be. Schaldemose also said she expects a tough fight over the Parliament’s proposal for a right for consumer compensation if platforms fail to meet their obligations.
Taming the Big Tech
The Council has put forward different amendments to the original text, including provisions making the rules for removal of content or blocking user’s actions on platforms more transparent. The French Presidency wants to focus especially on the governance framework for Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and the inclusion of Very Large Search Engines (VLOSE) in the scope.
Enforcement is another key concern for the Council. Disagreement between member states led to a compromise giving the European Commission the exclusive powers for the supervision and enforcement of the obligations concerning VLOPs or VLOSE, but this is likely to be a subject of further discussion.
In the meantime, the media sector lobbies for an exemption from the control and removal of content by big platforms. Although MEPs have included obligations for platforms to respect fundamental rights, including media freedom and pluralism, media companies are calling for more safeguards.
Quality over speed
French President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament in January that regulation of online platforms was a key priority for the country’s presidency, which aims to find a compromise text by the end of June. Considering the differences between the co-legislators’ positions, it is unclear whether this will be possible. Also, both Council and Parliament have made it clear that they will not be rushed.
“In the Parliament, we will prioritise quality over speed”, Schaldemose said. Similarly, Cédric O confirmed that the aim to conclude the file under the French Presidency does not mean that the Council will give up on some important elements. He however added that the respective positions of the ministers and the MEPs are not irreconcilable.