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OPINION: Strong internet legislation bonds societies

by Alexandra Geese | @AlexandraGeese | Greens-European Free Alliance
Thursday, 5 May 2022 12:30 GMT

Twitter, Facebook and Youtube logos are placed on a Russian flag in this illustration picture taken February 26, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Putting an end to surveillance advertising and online platforms’ manipulative practices that peddle hate and disinformation, and holding online platforms to account make the Digital Services Act a unique constitution for the digital world.

Alexandra Geese is a Member of the European Parliament with the Greens-European Free Alliance party.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how dangerous targeted disinformation campaigns can be. When hate and disinformation set the tone online, dictators, autocrats and tycoons can abuse it to undermine democratic values and even justify a war to their own people.

The European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) will mark a turning point in this regard, stipulating globally applicable rules and obligations for digital platforms for the first time, with a view to defending our fundamental rights and democracy.

What specific achievements have already been made in Europe? National court orders and decrees have to be implemented, dispelling the notion that the internet is a lawless space. The days of platforms having free rein over their terms and conditions and content moderation are gone, with all platforms obliged to implement non-arbitrary terms and conditions. Should Elon Musk be minded to reactivate Donald Trump’s account, it will have to be done in line with the same rules that apply to all other users.

The pioneering nature of the DSA is in its provisions for the very large platforms with over 45 million users, though. It does not hold the platforms liable for their users’ opinions, but rather for their own actions. The DSA obliges large platforms such as Google, Meta and Twitter to assess their algorithms for risks to fundamental rights, i.e. non-discrimination and the preservation of freedom of expression – entirely irrespective of who they are owned by.

The attention-based ranking system which fills the pockets of corporations through disinformation and hate will thus be put to the test. Until now, the loudest and most outrageous posts that generate the most interactions are given more visibility because they keep people in front of their screens. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have so far reaped the rewards by generating more advertising revenue through longer viewing times, and we have put up with powerful corporations maximising profits to the detriment of our societal values. The DSA sheds a light on those practices and opens up avenues for remedies.

The DSA will be the new constitution for the internet and for the first time, independent scientists and NGOs will be granted insight into the platforms’ mechanisms to assess the risks to society. The DSA will ensure more cohesion in society with this safety net.

For the first time, clear legal limits shall be set on the tapping of our personal data for advertising purposes. Sensitive personal data such as religion, skin colour or sexual orientation may no longer be used for profiling for advertising purposes. Likewise, data of children and young people may no longer be accessed for this purpose. This is a huge success because with it, we are also promoting the development of alternative forms of advertising.

We are fighting for a complete ban on behaviour-based tracking because the data serves as a breeding ground for disseminating manipulative messages and content to vulnerable target groups. Such advertising mechanisms exacerbate the polarisation of our society and undermine our democracy. The DSA is a first defence against this practice.

The essence of the DSA - namely putting an end to surveillance advertising and online platforms’ manipulative practices that peddle hate, agitation and disinformation; strengthening users’ rights and holding online platforms to account like never before - will make it a unique constitution for the digital world. It will change our lives, society, and the internet. It will bestow on us more democracy and freedom, giving democratic societies the power to thrive in the digital age.

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