9th Dec 2023

MEPs to crackdown on digital 'Wild West'

  • Fiddly details: MEPs from different political groups have tabled over a hundred amendments on the file (Photo: Markus Spiske)
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MEPs will vote on Thursday (20 January) their positions on the Digital Services Act (DSA), paving the way for negotiations with EU governments under the French EU Council presidency.

The landmark EU law on tech rules, once agreed, will become the world first-ever legally binding tool setting out transparency obligations for online players and holding Big Tech giants accountable.

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"It has become clear to everyone that the lack of rules and democratic controls on the decisions of a handful of major platforms, which have now become the main [online] providers, is no longer tolerable," EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said during Wednesday's plenary debate.

He argued that this proposal would establish clear and harmonised rules across Europe, sending "a strong message" to giant players like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

According to centre-left MEP Alex Agius Saliba, these platforms have become so big that they have started controlling the internet, people and politics "by simply having the key, and access, to the online content that we read, watch and share".

"For the moment the digital world is like the Wild West without any rules without any limits, or safeguards, leaving people defenceless, exposed and exploited for their vulnerabilities," he warned.

Echoing the same message, leading MEP Christel Schaldemose from the Socialists & Democrats said that new rules will no longer allow companies like Facebook to hide behind "a veil of ignorance" about the impact of their services.

"They will be forced to face up to the consequences of their algorithms," she said, pointing out that the DSA could become a "gold standard" in Europe and beyond, improving consumer safety, putting an end to the unrelenting harvesting of data and opening the black box of algorithms.

"We must let the digital economy grow within a democratic, transparent and trustworthy framework," she added.

The DSA sets obligations on online players based on their size and market influence and imposes fines of up to six percent of their global turnover when found in breach of the rules.

Overall, big online players, such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook, will be subjected to strict liability rules for illegal content and fraudulent products sold on their platforms, while small and micro companies would be exempt, under certain conditions.

The upcoming EU law is based on the principle that "what's illegal offline is illegal online," but it will require strong oversight by national and European authorities to make this more than a slogan.

'Anger and fear' triggers

Some issues have proven to be divisive since MEPs from different political groups have tabled over a hundred amendments on the file. This is for example the case of tracking-based ads.

Despite attempts from a coalition of MEPs in favour of banning tracking ads, the final report voted in the EU Parliament's internal market committee in November only introduces a ban for minors.

However, MEPs from the Greens/EFA and The Left on Wednesday urged their colleagues to support amendments that would put an end to these surveillance practices, of which the user is rarely aware.

"How will our democracy survive with social media spreading hate and lies?" Green MEP Alexandra Geese said, arguing that the storm on Capitol Hill 12 months ago was a wake-up call for Europe.

It is proven that what makes people interact and stay on platforms are two emotions, anger and fear. This is why, according to Geese, content that rouses anger and fear goes viral and increases platforms profits.

"The DSA is a first step, but we don't go far enough," she warned.

Additionally, leftwing MEPs are trying to find support to delete exceptions for data access for NGOs and researchers related to trade secrets - although this is unlikely to happen.

This issue was raised by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen earlier this year as a major loophole of EU rules.

The results of the vote on the DSA are expected to be announced on Thursday late afternoon.

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