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22nd Jan 2022

Lead MEPs push against Big Tech recommendation algorithms

  • MEPs agreed to introduce a ban on 'personalised ads' for minors (Photo: Luke Porter)
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MEPs in the internal market committee reached a common position on Tuesday (14 December) on the new Digital Service Act (DSA) – a set of rules requiring online platforms like Google and Facebook to remove illegal content quicker and be more transparent about the way their services work.

The DSA proposal creates a "notice and action" mechanism for the removal of illegal or harmful content as well as manipulation like fake news, obliging providers to act "without undue delay" over a reported notice, according to the text adopted by MEPs.

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Nevertheless, platforms need to make sure that their users can contest such decisions when their content has been mistakenly removed.

Big online marketplaces like Amazon or Alibaba would also have to ensure that the products sold on their platforms are safe, by strengthening the obligation to trace traders.

And the use of so-called 'dark patterns' by online platforms would be prohibited – since they are considered design tricks used to make users buy, click, or sign up for things they did not intend to.

Overall, the DSA introduces stricter liability rules for very large online platforms, such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook, and possible exemptions for small and micro companies, under certain conditions.

Complex exemptions

However, consumer groups argued this creates loopholes and undermine the whole proposal.

"Consumers are just as exposed when they shop on small platforms as on larger ones, so it is worrying to see a hugely complicated exception system created for medium-size platforms," said the deputy director general of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) Ursula Pachl.

Large platforms, for example, will have to carry out a risk assessment and independent audits of their algorithms used for content moderation or online advertisement, and be more transparent about the way their "recommendation systems" for content promotion actually work.

These recommendations systems are widely used by large platforms. But they have gained attraction over the last year after being accused of spreading misinformation and helping fake news go viral.

YouTube's recommendation system would select the next video for users to watch, Spotify's would pick the next song to listen to, and Twitter's the next person to follow.

However, according to the parliament's text, large platforms will have to provide users with alternative recommendation systems, not based on profiling, and explain on which criteria information is prioritised for them.

While large online platforms will not be obliged to publish their code for external review, they will be forced to share data with authorities, researchers and NGOs.

MEPs argued that these provisions would shed some light into the inner workings of these companies' sophisticated algorithms.

EU lawmakers managed to introduce a ban on "personalised ads" for minors, since these practices rely on large amounts of personal data and invasive surveillance practices, of which the user is rarely aware.

"[But] Big Tech's lobbying apparatus in Brussels eventually prevented any meaningful reform [in the online advertising market]," said Jan Penfrat from the European Digital Rights (EDRi).

Special rules for porn platforms

EU lawmakers introduced identification requirements for porn platforms at the very last minute. This was seen as a controversial move, due to the foreseeable leak of these databases and potential impact on victims of non-consensual intimate recordings.

While MEPs praised this provision as a success story, EDRi argues that forcing sex workers to reveal their real identity and contact details puts them at risk of hacking and abuse.

The text adopted in the internal market committee is expected to receive wide support in the next plenary in January – paving the way for negotiations with EU governments early next year, during the French presidency of the European Council.

The DSA, together with the provisions for so-called 'gatekeepers' in the Digital Markets Act, is seen as Europe's most ambitious bid to increase regulatory oversight over big online firms like Google or Facebook.

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