The internet is the largest marketplace for goods, messages, and opinions of our time. But who governs it and who is monitoring democratic values? The Digital Services Act (DSA) seeks to answer those questions. The new constitution for online platforms in Europe should seek to finally establish strong, transparent rules and clear boundaries.
Currently, the market is dominated by a few giants - Google, Facebook, Amazon – who disproportionately control and ultimately even decide who says what on the internet and which companies can enter the market. The information they spread shapes decisions and opinions, but the rules for dissemination lack transparency; they are subject to lucrative business models, unacceptable in a democratic society.
The EU is therefore taking the platforms to task and challenging the established system. Five pillars can strengthen EU citizens’ fundamental digital rights.
First, greater transparency; hate speech, defamation and misinformation cause great damage because they spread virally, exacerbated by the digital giants’ business models. They keep users on their sites longer with extreme, polarising content, simultaneously increasing their advertising revenue.
We want to oblige platforms to declare their recommendation algorithms; we will no longer accept that a black box controls our social discourse. Increased transparency enables analysis of the effects on public discourse and our democracy and is the basis for holding platforms to account.
“The new constitution for online platforms in Europe should seek to finally establish strong, transparent rules and clear boundaries”
Second, less manipulation. Surfing, chatting and networking on the internet is not free - we pay with our data. Information on locations, interests, and sexual orientation are sent in real time to thousands of companies who use it for advertising and categorising us without our knowledge.
The large social networks are primarily advertising companies: Facebook earned almost $69bn USD from advertising in 2019, 98 percent of their global income. This ubiquitous practice of collecting and collating data is also problematic because it fuels the targeted dissemination of hatred, misinformation and prejudices to susceptible target groups.
Algorithms manipulate information to generate maximum attention and retain people on the platforms longer by appealing to our strongest emotions, fear and anger and aggravating social polarisation. The DSA is an opportunity to ban micro-targeting and behaviour-based advertising.
Although Google and Facebook control large swathes of the market, the Dutch public television broadcaster NPO has shown it is possible to succeed without stalking or spying on people and instead rely on context-based advertising. It is therefore all the more puzzling that - against the will of the European Parliament - the Commission appears to not be planning to ban ‘advertising’, despite only internet giants benefitting from it.
Third, interoperability. Online services ought to open their programming interfaces to allow users to receive messages across platforms. This way, nobody would be forced to install multiple messenger apps or select social networks based on numbers of active contacts there, but rather on data protection or user-friendliness.
The switch to alternative services would allow all users to continue to enjoy the benefits of modern communication while avoiding personalised advertising and manipulation by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Fourth, stronger user rights. The handling of legal and illegal content is currently so poorly regulated that platforms can arbitrarily decide what is deleted and what remains online. For example, accounts on “Women on Waves” - a Dutch NGO for women’s rights and physical autonomy - are regularly blocked, while criminal hate speech remains unpunished.
Clear rules, better supervision and transparent monitoring procedures are needed on how platforms handle illegal content on the one hand and users’ complaints about wrongful content deletion on the other. Stricter differentiation between originators, subjects and infringement severity will be key here.
In future, each report of a potential infringement should include the URL, date and time, along with a personal declaration that the information is provided to the best of one’s knowledge. We must uphold the credo, “my content, my rights”. We want to strengthen the right of freedom of expression.
Last, social media councils. I propose “Social Media Councils” as a model for public debate, similar to Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland. These comprise civil society, experts for freedom of expression, democracy and technology and representatives of groups particularly affected by hatred and hate speech.
“The Digital Services Act offers us the opportunity to sustainably change the digital world and strengthen EU citizens’ fundamental digital rights”
They can trigger public debates, identify good and bad platform practice, and issue recommendations for action to politicians. This is the opposite of the alleged solutions proposed by the platforms themselves, namely internal ethics committees. How independent can an internal ethics committee at Facebook be if it answers to the board and its business interests? That simply cements the privatisation of justice and ethics.
Our online social discourse must no longer by at the behest of commercial interests. The Digital Services Act offers us the opportunity to sustainably change the digital world and strengthen EU citizens’ fundamental digital rights.
The question is: will the European Commission have the courage to propose regulations which really make a difference, or will they succumb to the big tech lobbyists and prefer to stick with the status quo?