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The European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) and the U.K.’s proposed Online Safety Bill are among the latest government policies designed to hold social media companies responsible for hate speech and “disinformation” posted by users.
Experts interviewed by The Defender expressed concerns about the potential slippery slope of regulations — in the U.S. and overseas — which, under the guise of “combating disinformation,” stifle the spread of information deemed inconvenient for governments and other powerful actors.
The EU’s new regulations, experts said, may have far-reaching impacts beyond Europe.
Michael Rectenwald, author of “Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom,” said he can foresee a future in which such regulations might affect all speech — not just speech on social media platforms.
Rectenwald told The Defender:
“[T]he EU’s DSA represents a major step toward one-world governance of social media and Internet search and one step closer to global government.
“Since the distinction between ‘on-line’ and ‘off-line’ activity will lose all meaning as the Internet includes the Internet of Things and Bodies, the DSA may become the law of the land.”
Is EU’s Digital Services Act on collision course with Musk’s Twitter plans?
In timing that coincided with Elon Musk’s intent to purchase Twitter, the EU announced April 23 the passage of the Digital Services Act (DSA).
The DSA seeks to tackle the spread of “misinformation and illegal content” and will apply “to all online intermediaries providing services in the EU,” in proportion to “the nature of the services concerned” and the number of users of each platform.
According to the DSA, “very large online platforms” (VLOPs) and “very large online search engines” (VLOSEs) — those with more than 45 million monthly active users in the EU — will be subject to the most stringent of the DSA’s requirements.
As Elon Musk prepares to finalize his purchase of Twitter, government officials in the U.S. and elsewhere are introducing new legislation aimed at combating “disinformation” online — particularly on social media platforms.https://t.co/GDbcZEWZTQ
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@RobertKennedyJr) May 6, 2022
Big Tech companies will be obliged to perform annual risk assessments to ascertain the extent to which their platforms “contribute to the spread of divisive material that can affect issues like health,” and independent audits to determine the steps the companies are taking to prevent their platforms from being “abused.”
These steps come as part of a broader crackdown on the “spread of disinformation” called for by the Act, requiring platforms to “flag hate speech, eliminate any kind of terrorist propaganda” and implement “frameworks to quickly take down illicit content.”
Regarding alleged “disinformation,” these platforms will be mandated to create a “crisis response mechanism” to combat the spread of such content, with the Act specifically citing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the “manipulation” of online content that has ensued.
The DSA also will ban certain types of advertising on digital platforms, including targeted ads tailored to children or to people of specific ethnicities or sexual orientations.
Tech companies also will be required to increase transparency in the form of providing regulators and researchers “access to data on how their systems recommend content to users.”
This latter point appears similar to Musk’s plans to make Twitter’s algorithms “open source to increase trust.”
Companies violating the provisions of the DSA would risk fines of up to 6% of their total global annual revenue, while repeat offenses may result in the platforms being banned from the EU — despite the “open internet” principle professed by the principle of “net neutrality” enshrined in EU law.
According to Techcrunch, the DSA will not fully come into effect until early 2024. However, rules for VLOPs have a shorter implementation period and may be enforced by early 2023.
A spokesperson for the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — said the new regulations will ensure Big Tech’s “power over public debate is subject to democratically validated rules, in particular on transparency and accountability.”
Margrethe Vestager, the vice president of the European Commission, added, “With today’s agreement we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services can pose to society and citizens,” and, “With the DSA we help create a safe and accountable online environment.”
Directly addressing Musk, the European Commission’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, tweeted, “Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding. Mr. Musk knows this well,” adding, “[Musk] is familiar with European rules on automotive [referring to Musk’s ownership of Tesla Motors], and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”
Separately, Breton stated, “We welcome everyone. We are open but on our conditions. At least we know what to tell him: ‘Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here.’”
Breton’s warning to Musk bears a striking resemblance to the statements of then-German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who in 2015 warned the newly elected left-wing Greek government not to entertain thoughts about renegotiating the austerity measures imposed on the country by the EU and International Monetary Fund, stating, “Elections change nothing. There are rules.”
Voice of America, a media outlet reflective of official U.S. government policy, reported “the job of reining in a Musk-led Twitter could fall to Europe,” referring to the DSA.
According to Gizmodo, the EU’s new legislation “could have global reverberations,” adding, “Lawmakers are also hoping it could serve as a model for other countries like India and Japan.”
However, Gizmodo warns the success of the DSA in accomplishing its objectives is far from guaranteed, referring to the example of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): “Some predicted [the GDPR] would fundamentally shift online privacy protection worldwide, and instead [it] basically just gave us those insufferable cookie permission pop-ups.”
While the DSA would apply to all 27 EU member states, some of these countries have already enacted similar domestic legislation. For instance, Germany has regulations in place that require digital platforms to remove hate speech within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50 million ($56 million).
Techcrunch, in reporting on the passage of the DSA, referred to legislation in countries not frequently noted for their democratic traditions or respect for free speech, such as China, Turkey, India and Nigeria.
As Techcrunch stated, platforms in these countries found to be “non-compliant” with domestic mandates may face fines, police raids, shutdowns and prison sentences for their executives.
Similar regulations pending in U.K.
Legislation similar to the DSA, the Online Safety Bill, is pending in the U.K. It would require Big Tech platforms to moderate “illegal” and “harmful” content in order to be allowed to operate in the U.K.
The bill would require digital platforms to protect users from such “harmful” content, with the threat of fines of up to 10% of global turnover for companies found in violation, as well as potential prison time for senior managers of these companies in cases of non-compliance.
A spokesperson for the U.K. government said:
“Twitter and all social media platforms must protect their users from harm on their sites.
“We are introducing new online safety laws to safeguard children, prevent abusive behaviour and protect free speech.
“All tech firms with users in the U.K. will need to comply with the new laws or face hefty fines and having their sites blocked.”
Max Blain, a spokesperson for U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, said, “Regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be responsible” for “protecting” users.
As The Defender recently reported, Damian Collins, a member of the British parliament with the British Labour Party who led a parliamentary committee that developed the Online Safety Bill, is a board member of the Center for Combating Digital Hate, which partners with prominent “fact-checking” firm NewsGuard.
As U.S., EU sign commitment to ‘democratic values’ on the internet as they prepare policies to regulate online speech
Overshadowed by the news of Musk’s Twitter purchase and developments such as the DSA and the Biden administration’s “disinformation board,” several dozen countries quietly signed the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” April 28.
Fifty-six countries and entities, including the U.S. and the EU, signed this declaration, described as “a political commitment to push rules for the internet that are underpinned by democratic values” and a response to Russia “wielding internet disruptions as a part of its escalating attacks on Ukraine.”
U.S. News reports that the declaration — which is not legally binding — is the first of its kind globally, and “protects human rights, promotes free flow of information, protects the privacy of users, and sets rules for a growing global digital economy among steps to counter what two Biden administration officials called a ‘dangerous new model’ of internet policy from countries such as Russia and China.”
According to the U.S. State Department, the declaration’s principles include:
- Protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people.
- Promote a global Internet that advances the free flow of information.
- Advance inclusive and affordable connectivity so that all people can benefit from the digital economy.
- Promote trust in the global digital ecosystem, including through protection of privacy.
- Protect and strengthen the multi-stakeholder approach to governance that keeps the Internet running for the benefit of all.
In turn, the declaration was described by the EU as being “in line with the rights and principles strongly anchored in the EU.”
“Today, for the first time, like-minded countries from all over the world are setting out a shared vision for the future of the Internet, to make sure that the values we hold true offline are also protected online, to make the Internet a safe place and trusted space for everyone, and to ensure that the Internet serves our individual freedom.
“Because the future of the Internet is also the future of democracy, of humankind.”
Thierry Breton remarked:
“This Declaration will ensure that the Internet and the use of digital technologies reinforce, not weaken, democracy and respect for human rights.”
According to the State Department, “[t]he Declaration remains open to all governments or relevant authorities willing to commit and implement its vision and principles.”
What does all this mean for Musk, Twitter and the future of free speech online?
Social media analysts and experts expressed varying opinions and predictions as to what regulations such as the DSA may mean for the global operations of digital platforms such as Twitter — especially if Musk attempts to make good on his pledges to “restore free speech.”
Vasilis Vasilopoulos, data protection officer with Greek public broadcaster ERT and a Ph.D. candidate in journalism and mass media studies at Greece’s Aristotle University, told The Defender there are some positive elements to the DSA.
However, the boundaries of what is considered free speech should also be expanded, albeit within certain limits, he said.
“The DSA is not the only means through which the problem of unethical [social media] algorithms with deceptive motives, or the unethical use of social media platforms, can be solved.
“[I]t is obvious that these platforms have surpassed the limits to democracy that we believed existed, and therefore, it is important that instead of imposing restrictions, we expand these boundaries, in favor of humanity and not capital or power.”
Matthew Spitzer, professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said the EU’s proposals in particular may clash with Musk’s stated goals for Twitter, telling The Defender:
“[The DSA] may interfere with one of Elon Musk’s stated goals for buying Twitter. He seems to want less content moderation. But this regulation requires a lot of it.
“Second, this regulation dovetails with Musk’s stated desire for increased transparency. He had promised more transparency.”
Spitzer added his view that the DSA will likely increase the cost of operation for all social media companies, especially if they must also conform to domestic laws passed by various EU member states.
He added that U.S. tech companies may represent an easy target for European regulators, telling The Defender:
“[T]here will be conflicts between the USA and Europe … all of the target companies started in the USA. They are easy political targets in Europe.”
Referring specifically to Elon Musk and Twitter, Rectenwald said:
“If Musk is to have his way, the platform would no longer discriminate against content based on ‘wokeness,’ political beliefs, or the adherence to official state narratives and dictates.
“This could include the restoration of banned accounts on request by users and dramatic changes to Twitter’s discriminatory, leftist algorithms.”
According to Rectenwald, the EU’s regulations may “hamstring” Musk’s vision for Twitter and lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to content moderation, resulting in a “slippery slope” wherein “any information and opinion that differs from WHO-established official narratives regarding pandemics or other health-related crises” would be restricted.
“Most likely, in order to meet the EU’s regulatory requirements and to streamline their efforts, VLOPs and VLOSEs will simply apply one set of rules to all online content.”
He also added that further pressures on platforms like Twitter may come not from EU regulators, but from the tech industry itself:
“[P]ressure to conform to ‘woke’ dictates will come from the Big Tech ‘woke’ cartel, including threats to remove the Twitter app from the Apple Store for failure to censor ‘hate speech,’ and the flight of ‘woke’ advertisers.
“Most likely, Musk’s purchase of Twitter will make no difference as free speech is further curtailed.”