With a historic agreement, Brussels rewrites the rules of the internet

After 16 hours of negotiations, European politicians adopted radical new European rules for Internet companies in the night from Friday to Saturday. In addition to the package of measures proposed by the European Commission in December 2020, and on which the last closed-door negotiations took place in Brussels, there will be new rules on, among other things, targeted advertising, online manipulation and the use of algorithms by social networks.

At around 2 am, negotiators from EU member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament reached an agreement on the so-called Digital Services Act (DSA), a package of measures that, like European law AVG privacy policy adopted in 2016, goes far beyond the scope of the GDPR, the borders of the EU will affect the Internet economy. Countries such as the United States, Canada and Singapore are expected to introduce similar rules in the coming months. Last month, the EU already reached an agreement on the Digital Markets Laws, the sister package of measures with rules on market power and unfair competition.

Also read: The five reasons why Big Tech is now being tamed by the EU

After years of self-regulation and, as a result, an Internet that critics say resembles the Wild West, the DSA must make the Internet more secure and reliable. From counterfeit products on Amazon to child pornography on online forums, and from privacy breaches by data traders to disinformation campaigns on YouTube, the DSA has new rules for it. “Platforms need to be transparent about moderating content, preventing dangerous misinformation from going viral, and preventing unsafe products from being offered. With today’s agreement, we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services may pose to society and citizens,” said Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Vice President in charge of the Competition portfolio, after the deal was closed.

Risk analysis, career options

Internet companies have more duties, citizens more rights. For example, social media companies must show why they show users a certain message or ad. delete them a mail, then they are obliged to justify that choice. Users should be able to appeal against such a decision free of charge and in their own language. Young people enjoy additional protection, including a ban on ads targeting EU citizens under the age of 16. Large online services must make their data available for scientific research, make their systems accessible for external audits, and conduct annual risk analyzes with independent experts. Based on those analyses, they must also demonstrate how they ensure that their services do not infringe fundamental rights. Additionally, online marketplaces must store merchant data on their platforms. This makes it possible to quickly discover the perpetrator through the courts if someone is scammed on Amazon, while often remaining anonymous and untraceable.

The final version of the DSA, which will come into force on January 1, 2024, is in many ways stronger than the European Commission proposal adopted in December 2020. For example, in the original plan, Internet companies were only required to be more transparent about ads. That obligation remains, but under pressure from the European Parliament, strict restrictions on targeted advertising have also been included in the final law. When the law goes into effect, internet companies will no longer be able to serve ads based on “sensitive data” such as religion and medication use. It is expected that after the law is introduced, social media companies will be forced to show users more contextual ads, such as sports shoe ads next to a football video, and reduce data collection from their users. “Despite all the lobbying, Europe is today reforming the rules of the Internet and is also the first government in the world to follow-up it addresses advertising,” says MEP Paul Tang (PvdA), who was involved in the proposal on targeted advertising, among other things. He calls the deal “historic” and the new rules “a huge win for society.”

Also read: Brussels focuses the bazooka on Big Tech

past mistakes

European politicians say they have learned from past mistakes. With the introduction of the GDPR, oversight was left to member states, so the regulator in Ireland, where many big tech companies are based, was inundated with complaints. Especially for the supervision of the biggest players, such as Meta and Google, the DSA will have a new regulator to be established in Brussels, which will be funded by revenue from a specially introduced technology tax. To ensure that companies comply with the rules, fines can be as high as 6 percent of annual turnover.

Civil rights groups have been lobbying in recent weeks against a recently tabled amendment to the DSA that should give the European Commission greater powers in crisis situations. The proposal allows the Commission to require platforms to carry out a risk assessment and take appropriate measures to combat disinformation in emergency situations, such as a war or a health crisis. According to the Commission, information about the coronavirus and Russian propaganda during the war in Ukraine would underline the importance of this “crisis mechanism”. In a joint statement, civil rights groups sounded the alarm: It would be undemocratic for the Commission to determine what an emergency is and when it will end. The text of the proposal was also formulated very broadly, which, according to the organizations, would allow the Commission to announce far-reaching measures without consulting citizens and parliament. Finally, a term was added to the special measures: initially three months, with the possibility of extension. In addition, the Commission cannot determine what an emergency is, but needs coordination with the yet to be established Digital Services Council, in which the Member States, among others, have a say.

The final text of the Digital Services Law will not be available for a few weeks. That text will then be voted on again, but now that an agreement has been reached, that vote is unlikely to lead to major changes.

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