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The EU Digital Services Act: What it is, and what it could mean for publishers

The act signals the beginning of a significant shift in governments’ approach to regulating big tech

Recently, the 3 branches of the EU agreed upon the outlines of what could be the single most consequential piece of legislation affecting social media platforms. The EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) imposes strict and enforceable obligations onto the so-called “VLOPs” — Very Large Online Platforms — regarding the content posted on them, the algorithms that promote and magnify the reach of that content, and the content’s real-world effects.

Here, we’ll take a look at what exactly the DSA is, its potential effect on platforms, and what it could mean for publishers.

What is the EU Digital Services Act and why is it important? 

The main purpose of the DSA is to compel companies such as Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Google and Twitter to be even more vigilant with regard to any illegal or harmful content they host and make them responsible for the societal effects of that content. The aim is to crack down on misinformation and abuse, as well as so-called “dark pattern” interfaces — interfaces designed in such a way as to prompt certain actions from the user. 

In theory, the DSA compounds already existing legislation as well as expands both the scope of obligations and the enforcement power of the EU, with platforms falling short of these standards liable to face fines of up to 6% of annual global turnover.

What are the DSA’s main elements?

The DSA’s scope is wide-ranging and includes:

1) For users

  • Banning users who repeatedly post illegal content.
  • Internal complaint mechanisms must be implemented to allow users to contest decisions made by the platforms with regard to content.

2) For platforms

  • Platforms are to undergo audits to assess their “risk management” systems.
  • Platforms will be forced to allow researchers access to their algorithms. 
  • Dark patterns — site and app design which encourages predetermined actions — are to be prohibited.

3) For advertisers

  • Adverts can no longer be targeted at children, nor targeted based on a user’s sexuality, gender or religious beliefs.

When will the DSA come into place?

The DSA was first proposed by the EU’s executive body, the European Commision, in 2020, with these proposals being firmed up through trilateral negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Council. In April 2022, all 3 bodies reached agreement on the content of the act, and it is expected to come into force by 2024 at the earliest.

What does the DSA mean for social media platforms?

Although the rules of the DSA only apply within the European Union, compliance with the regulations will force a fundamental reworking of the internal policies of social media companies which they may well decide to apply to their wider global presence for the sake of ease and cost. Alternatively, the law could spur governments in other parts of the world to enact legislation of their own, as we saw with California’s California Privacy Rights Act which followed hot on the heels of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

What does the DSA mean for me?

The act has not yet been passed into law, and so there is still time for alterations. One of the most striking aspects of the act, as it currently stands, is that platforms will be compelled to provide access to their algorithms — including the “recommender” algorithms that determine which content is promoted — to researchers.

This could mean an unparalleled insight into exactly how social media companies decide which types of content to promote.

In theory, the day-to-day impact on publishers will be minimal besides strengthening mechanisms for flagging illegal activity on platforms. Further, algorithmic transparency, while of academic interest and social importance, will not mean stasis. Social media companies will still be able to tweak their recommender algorithms on a frequent basis and many of those changes will only be detectable downstream.

In short

The DSA could prove to be a watershed moment for social media companies and their relationship to users – both as individuals and businesses. But as always, the proof will be in the pudding.

The hope is that the DSA leads to social media platforms taking greater accountability for the effects of misinformation, as well as increasing the transparency with which they operate. Already, however, there have been warnings that the legislation may contain loopholes that social media platforms could exploit to limit the act’s impact.

Despite this, it seems clear that the act signals the beginning of a significant shift in governments’ approach to regulating big tech. In the weeks since the act was finalized, it was reported that the UK government is planning to implement legislation aimed at curbing perceived anti-competitive behavior in Big Tech, while a new congressional bill in the US would limit the ability of the largest tech companies to participate in more than one aspect of the online ad market.

Time will tell just how revolutionary the DSA is, but it isn’t a bad start.

Republished with kind permission of Echobox, the AI-powered social publishing platform for publishers. More than 1,000 leading publishers worldwide, including Newsweek, The Times, The Telegraph, Handelsblatt, Le Monde and Conde Nast, use Echobox to reach billions of people each year.