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EU gets tougher on big tech

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The EU parliament late last week agreed a set of draft measures that push back on big tech’s data gathering, targeted advertising, and look to insert more transparency on how content is removed.

The measures are amendments to the EU Digital Services Act and, for the most part, seem to be about making it easier for people to opt out of having Google, Facebook, Apple et al monitor and use their personal information for commercial purposes. It also describes more transparent processes around which content gets taken down and how.

In terms of targeted advertising, the proposals want to enforce ‘more transparent and informed choice’ for internet users, including firms being clearer on how digitally gathered information is going to be used. It says that refusing consent should be no more difficult or time-consuming than giving consent, and that if no consent is given other ways of interreacting with sites or apps should be provided, including “options based on tracking-free advertising”.

Special note is also made of children and vulnerable groups, prohibiting targeting or amplification techniques towards them.

It also describes some more defined ways of removing illegal content online and preventing the spread of disinformation. What’s proposed is a ‘notice and action’ mechanism for the removal of illegal products, services or content online. The statement reads: “Providers of hosting services should act on receipt of such a notice without undue delay, taking into account the type of illegal content that is being notified and the urgency of taking action. MEPs also included stronger safeguards to ensure notices are processed in a non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory manner and with respect for fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression.”

This latter part in particular seems to be about letting the EU have a say in what gets removed from social platforms and why, decisions which are mostly done behind closed doors at the tech firms currently. It then goes further in its proposed measures tailored specifically at ‘very large online platforms (VLOPs)’ – which we can probably read as the big platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The release says these firms: “Will be subject to specific obligations due to the particular risks they pose regarding the dissemination of both illegal and harmful content. The DSA would help to tackle harmful content (which might not be illegal) and the spread of disinformation by including provisions on mandatory risk assessments, risk mitigation measures, independent audits and the transparency of so-called “recommender systems” (algorithms that determine what users see).”

It also states that online platforms should be prohibited from using ‘deceiving or nudging techniques to influence users’ behaviour through “dark patterns”’, and that people should be able to seek compensation from online firms if these rules are not being adhered to. Interestingly, it also mentions exempting micro and small enterprises – further hammering home the point that this is all about Silicon Valley and the influence of big tech.

“Today’s vote shows MEPs and EU citizens want an ambitious digital regulation fit for the future,” said Christel Schaldemose who is leading the Parliament’s negotiating team. “Much has changed in the 20 years since we adopted the e-commerce directive. Online platforms have become increasingly important in our daily life, bringing new opportunities, but also new risks. It is our duty to make sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online. We need to ensure that we put in place digital rules to the benefit of consumers and citizens. Now we can enter into negotiations with the Council, and I believe we will be able to deliver on these issues.”

The cut and thrust of these proposals is about letting people use the internet – practically vital in 2022 – without having to concede that the inevitable trade off is that the big tech firms will monitor your behaviour, create profiles, and use it to monetise you. The only real way of avoiding that at the moment is to opt out of the 21st century entirely and use a flip phone and snail mail to communicate.

We’d like to see more detail on what is being proposed on the content side, however. It’s not defined exactly what illegal content means, but that will presumably be spelled out if all this becomes law. More slippery of course is what is meant by misinformation – as this is hard to pin down conclusively and depends on who you ask.

All in all, this represents the latest broadside from the EU against the general influence of Big Tech. With the weight of all EU member states behind it should it become law it will no doubt have significant impact on how the major tech platforms operate, especially with regards to privacy.

 

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