A Digital Services Law Or A Digital Markets Redivision?

In Europe, the scandal around the Law on Digital Services (Digital Service Act), designed to protect the rights and freedoms of Internet users and social media, which, as it turned out, not only tightens total control in this area but also implicitly gives broad rights to various commercial structures to extract their profits from it.

In late October, at a hearing in the European Parliament, Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, refused a request from MEPs to provide details of a political advertising campaign her department had conducted in support of the new law. The fact is that the extent and efficiency of the implementation of the DSA remain unclear, despite its entry into force in August this year. One of its ambitious provisions is to harmonize legislation regulating social media and file-sharing platforms across the EU. And this is extremely difficult to achieve in practice, given the major differences between member countries. Will platforms everywhere play the same game, knowing that the conditions for implementing the provisions of the law are not the same everywhere?

Ms. Johansson is also accused of deliberately including provisions in the bill that favored the commercial interests of Internet companies. In particular, she and her team maintained a close relationship with Thorn, a US-based company engaged in Internet monitoring. The company’s technological developments have been used as the foundation of the European Commission’s requirements for control mechanisms for social media and messengers.

In addition, under the pretext of implementing one of the principal purposes of the law—to protect children from sexual abuse on the Internet—Johansson contacted several NGOs, foundations, and associations whose activities, according to an investigation by the French publication Le Monde, were supported by business organizations with specific interests in the use of the EU funds allocated for the development of law enforcement.

Ylva Johansson
Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs

MEPs also saw that Johansson was acting in the interests of the EU intelligence and law enforcement agencies to gain total control over Europeans’ personal data under a plausible pretext.

On the other hand, experts express serious doubts that the law will allow effective control over Internet platforms. According to Professor Romain Badouard of the University of Paris II, European authorities will not be able to control the actions of the largest social media and sites as they would like. Increased moderation on the Internet may jeopardize freedom of expression. At the same time, platforms under greater pressure will resort to over-moderation, removing content for fear of being penalized.

The point is that the law provides for fines of up to 6% of total turnover for violators.

Access to platform data is another critical issue. The act stipulates that lawmakers have access to this data to verify it. An audit is planned, but it remains unknown how it will be conducted or what data regulators will have access to. All this is pretty vague. The risk is that social media will only pretend to be transparent.

Nevertheless, the enactment of the new law has already sparked opposition from the giant corporations it is intended to target first.

The European Union has designated 19 online platforms that will be subject to the strictest level of regulation in the region under the DSA. The authorities will pay close attention to the use of AI algorithms and recommendations and targeted advertising on these platforms, including Google, TikTok, and others. The list is a mix of familiar digital services such as: X (Twitter), Apple’s App Store, Alphabet’s YouTube and Google Search, Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and others. All meet the criteria of either major online platforms (VLOP) or major online search engines (VLOSE). More than 45 million monthly active users in the European Union is the main criterion.

Some named platforms may not be ready for this particular DSA compliance regime. In particular, last November, the Commission had already warned Twitter—and its Ilon Musk directly—of the “tremendous work” it would have to do to comply with the block rules. In the summer of 2023, Platform X (Twitter) announced that it was preparing to comply with the DSA by adding a button to report illegal content in Europe in the future.

Amazon, the largest marketplace in the US, filed a lawsuit with the European Court of General Jurisdiction in Luxembourg in July over its inclusion on the list of companies subject to the new law. According to the company, it is not the largest retailer in any of the EU member states where it operates, while Brussels does not consider its larger European competitors as such. German online clothing retailer Zalando filed a similar complaint against the new rules with the General Court of the European Union in late June.

While the new law was supposed to be designed to streamline the activities of IT giants in Europe, it turns out to serve the redistribution of digital markets and spheres of influence on the Internet—not in favor of ordinary users and not for the sake of protecting their rights and freedoms.

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