Hi, This is Hot Mic and I’m Nidhi Razdan.
Last week, the European Union reached an agreement on a landmark legislation which will force big tech firms like Google and Meta and others to combat disinformation and hate speech more aggressively on their platforms.
The EU’s new rules will make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platform’s algorithms.
The biggest online platforms and search engines, defined as having more than 45 million users, will face extra scrutiny, and that includes billions of dollars in fines.
We’ll come to that a little later.
The timing is even more interesting, as billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter this week and is all set to take over the social media giant later this year. A senior EU official has already warned Musk that he will need to comply with their rules.
Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist and many fear that may mean a dilution of content moderation on Twitter and further fuel hate speech and disinformation.
So what exactly is the new European Union law and how will it work?
It’s called the Digital Services Act and will essentially require companies to strictly police their online platforms by setting up new policies and procedures to quickly remove anything that’s flagged as hate speech, terrorist propaganda and any other content declared illegal by countries within the European Union.
Now, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, that means, would have to give users tools to flag such content and in an easy and effective way so that it can be swiftly removed.
Instead of letting platforms decide how to deal with abusive or illegal content, the law says that it will lay down specific rules and obligations for these companies to follow.
The act, which is yet to become a law, was proposed by the EU Commission, the Antitrust Commission, that is, in December of 2020.
It’s called the DSA for short and it’s likely to be adopted by the EU Parliament in the next few months.
So who exactly is covered under this law?
Well, there are 27 countries in the European Union and this law would apply to all of them.
It includes platforms that provide internet access, domain name registrars, hosting services such as cloud computing and web hosting services as well.
Significantly, very large online platforms and very large online search engines will face what the law calls more stringent requirements – that includes fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue and banning of repeat offenders.
Any service with more than 45 million monthly active users in the EU will fall into this category.
Those with under 45 million monthly users in the EU will be exempt from certain new obligations.
So online platforms and intermediaries such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, etc. will now have to add, what are called new procedures for faster removal of content deemed illegal or harmful.
Each EU country can frame its own laws on these separately as well.
The platforms will also have to explain what their policy is on taking content down, while users can also challenge their decisions.
These platforms will have to have a clear mechanism to help users flag content that is illegal and will have to cooperate with what are called trusted flaggers.
Ads targeted at minors will be banned, as well as ads based on a user’s gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
It will also get companies to disclose how their services spread or amplify divisive content.
The law also covers shopping platforms like Amazon that will have to ensure that customers are properly informed about the products being sold and that information about these products is clearly displayed.
The law proposes to ban misleading interfaces that are designed to trick users into doing something they normally would not agree to otherwise.
That includes those irritating pop-up pages that keep coming up.
Customers will now have to be offered a choice of a system which does not recommend content based on their profiling.
The law also says – something very simple but important – that canceling a subscription should be as easy as subscribing.
The EU Commission Vice President said in a statement that, “With this agreement, we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks and their services can pose to society and to citizens.
“The time of big online platforms behaving like they are too big to care is coming to an end.”
That is what the EU’s internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, has said.
Germany’s Justice Minister has said, “The rules will safeguard freedom of speech online by ensuring that sites can be made to review decisions on deleting posts, but at the same time they’ll be required to prevent their platforms from being misused.”
He said that “death threats, aggressive insults and incitement to violence are not expressions of free speech, but rather attacks on free and open discourse.”
So does this mean that online platforms will actually be held liable for what users post for anything that is posted on their platforms?
Well, actually, no, not quite.
But if platforms are aware of illegal acts and fail to remove them, then they will be held liable for user behaviour.
Now, in India, we had IT rules that were framed last year.
They make the social media intermediary and its executives liable if the company fails to carry out due diligence.
The rules call for companies like Facebook and Google to appoint a Chief Compliance Officer who can be booked if a tweet or a post violates local laws and is not removed within the stipulated period.
India’s rules also introduce the need to publish a monthly compliance report.
There is also a controversial clause on the need to trace the originator of a message – a provision that has been challenged by WhatsApp in the Delhi High Court.
The need to regulate Big Tech in the West made headlines after the 2016 US presidential election when Russia was accused of using social media platforms to try and influence voters.
The pandemic made the disinformation issue even more alarming with all kinds of falsehoods on Covid and vaccines floating around.
Facebook has also been under a lot of scrutiny in India for allowing hate speech and for favoring the BJP with cheaper ads.
How far this new EU law will go, remains to be seen.
And it also remains to be seen if other countries will follow suit.