Digital Services Act: Parliament’s chance to give citizens the online protection they deserve

The amendments to the Digital Services Act have improved the protection for citizens, but these have not fully addressed the risks posed; we must remain vigilant in defending our freedoms, believes Patrick Breyer
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By Patrick Breyer

Dr Patrick Breyer (DE, Greens/EFA) is the rapporteur on the opinion from the LIBE Committee on the Digital Services Act

20 Jan 2022

MEPs have adopted amendments to the Digital Services Act, which will redefine Europeans’ relationship with the Internet and set global standards. The stakes couldn’t be higher; in recent years, we have seen security breaches that put the personal details of millions in the hands of criminals, people ensnared by conspiracy theories and disinformation, personal data abused for political manipulation and profit and censorship through automated filters and by authoritarian regimes.

In recent years, citizens have become more aware of privacy risks online through the Snowden revelations, misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica and allegations that Member State governments have used mobile spyware to spy on opposition figures. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) reflected many of these concerns, but several remain unaddressed. 

“While the DSA amendments represent genuine progress for citizens’ rights, and address important issues we face on the web, this is offset by failures to address other issues”

Recently, the phone numbers of over 500 million Meta/Facebook users found their way to cybercriminals. Facebook didn’t need these phone numbers, yet collected them from app users. This incident demonstrates that the only secure data is uncollected data which is why I’m delighted Parliament approved the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee’s proposal to give citizens the right to use services and pay anonymously when possible. 

Unfortunately, this right is not to apply to adult content creators. Amendment 291 (a) would require users to disclose their mobile phone numbers to porn platforms before they upload content or post comments. This provision violates the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection. Writing to MEPs, the EU Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA) emphasised that “due to the stigmatised and criminalised nature of adult sexual content producers and other types of sex work, the safety of their data is of utmost importance as any data” as leaks would “pose a direct threat to the real-life (offline) safety and wellbeing of sex workers”.

While recognising the intentions, a policy threatening the safety of a community already stigmatised is ill-considered. We should not create a precedent for eliminating anonymous publishing as a means of deterrence.

We also failed to protect EU citizens and businesses from overreach by authoritarian governments. LIBE’s amendments to harmonise the procedures and requirements for governments to request data on individuals from digital services would have ensured that decisions to disclose records on personal online activities are taken by courts, not government authorities. Such government surveillance should only be permitted to investigate and prosecute serious crime or prevent serious threats to public security. Sadly, this amendment failed at a time when some Member State governments have been accused of hacking and spying on political opponents, journalists and lawyers.

Our societies are more tolerant and open than they have ever been before, yet online hate speech and disinformation thrive online. The DSA seeks to address this by treating the symptoms rather than the problem, i.e., accelerating the removal of content rather than addressing why it’s being disseminated in the first place. The reason, as Facebook whistle-blower Francis Haugen explained during her testimony at the European Parliament, is recommender algorithms. These select everything we see on social media, and consistently promote destructive, extreme content in pursuit of more clicks. As a result, extremists who would usually be relegated to the fringes are given a centre-stage role in online discourse.

The DSA sets out a framework to audit and research these algorithms, but we didn’t want citizens to have to wait for big tech to act: LIBE proposed that citizens be given the right to opt-out now, and to view posts chronologically, without manipulation, and that personalised timelines should require consent from the user. My group went further, calling for a right to choose external recommender algorithms that are not geared towards maximum addiction.

Sadly, none of these amendments made it through, meaning this phenomenon is likely to continue. Haugen’s testimony also exposed the disastrous impact of social media on young people’s mental health, with revelations that Instagram promoted weight loss content to users with eating disorders and that Meta/Facebook approved ads targeting children with smoking, alcohol, gambling and dating sites.

“Clearly, the risks of exploiting data on every user’s digital life and personality to target for paid messages outweigh the benefits. Unfortunately, Parliament didn’t vote to phase out surveillance advertising”

Clearly, the risks of exploiting data on every user’s digital life and personality to target for paid messages clearly outweigh the benefits. Unfortunately, Parliament didn’t vote to phase out surveillance advertising, but did, however, vote to create an easy way for users to generally opt-out of surveillance advertising and ensure that websites cannot block them on those grounds. This is a significant advance for our privacy online. 

One reason the internet grew so rapidly was that it allowed anyone to quickly build a business, share information and opinions at minimum cost, and without censorship. However, by rejecting the LIBE amendments, the DSA hands the power of censorship to politically controlled entities rather than independent judges only. This is compounded by the lack of effort to limit issues with automatic censorship in the form of upload filters.

Such algorithms cannot reliably differentiate, for example, terrorism from counterterrorism. Even previously removed images and videos can be legitimate for journalism, science, arts or public debate. News media are also suffering from big tech’s seemingly arbitrarily censoring of content.

Sadly, this means we will increasingly see cases of “illiberal” governments demanding that content - legal in most EU countries - be removed, creating an avalanche of cases at the Court of Justice, with prolonged uncertainty for businesses and citizens. Fortunately, Parliament wants terms and conditions to respect freedom of media and of expression.

While the DSA amendments represent genuine progress for citizens’ rights, and address important issues we face on the web, this is offset by failures to address other issues with the Commission’s proposal. In the upcoming trilogue discussions, our successes in protecting online privacy and freedom of expression will need a robust defence.