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Strong enforcement of the DSA can bring human rights improvements, but real alternatives to the current dominant surveillance business model are still needed
Sebastian Becker Castellaro is a Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi)
On July 5, the European Parliament approved a set of rules that will reshape our digital spaces and experiences in the years ahead. The Digital Services Act (DSA) is a turning point in internet history as it provides key tools to put people in control of Big Tech. The new regulation seeks to prevent violations of our rights like in the Cambridge Analytica scandal when the company used Facebook’s design to amass data on 87 million people to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
Civil society’s continuous efforts and public engagement ensured that the DSA puts people before profit, challenging surveillance-based advertisements and unfair algorithms. Now, platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon must follow the DSA’s principles of transparency and accountability. They will have to reveal how they offer content through their algorithms and take legal responsibility when hate speech, online gender-based violence or false information is detected on their platforms.
An important victory for digital rights is the introduction of the conditional liability regime and the prohibition of a general monitoring obligation. This ensures that people’s online content will be protected from mass indiscriminate removal, guaranteeing the free flow of information. The internet is crucial for exercising our right to freedom of expression which is important, especially, for the work of human rights activists, whistleblowers, and journalists. We cannot allow arbitrary decisions without a lack of scrutiny of what content should stay online or be taken down.
The DSA enables people to take control over their content and flag potentially illegal online content or challenge content moderation decisions through effective appeals and redress mechanisms. The response process will be transparent and without the pressure of facing immediate legal liability at the expense of the rule of law.
If the DSA is properly enforced, platforms with more than 45 million users like Google and Facebook will have to conduct risk assessments, deploy risk mitigation measures and do yearly independent audits. This will help identify potential human rights violations in their advertising-driven business models, including the use of automated decision-making systems and personal data practices.
But despite the human rights improvements the DSA can bring to people, real alternatives to the current dominant surveillance business model are still needed. While the ad tech industry often claims to be useful to people by providing more “relevant” ads, it is most of all characterised by an omnipresent system of pervasive 24/7 online corporate surveillance.
Google trackers are embedded in almost 90% of free-of-charge Android apps and in over 87% of all websites. People’s data are being massively extracted to create detailed profiles, and given that these trackers are invisible to users, people are unable to meaningfully object to being surveilled by the ad tech industry. Losing control of the content you see directly limits your freedom of information and expression, enables discriminatory practices by advertisers and amplifies social stereotyping.
That’s why it is disappointing that the EU did not fully phase out surveillance-based online advertising. The DSA prohibits targeted advertising practices based on profiling and sensitive data - e.g. racial or ethnic origin, political opinion, gender or sexual orientation - only on online platforms, leaving email and messaging services untouched. Similarly, the ban on deceptive and manipulate interface designs excludes the most pervasive ones, cookie and tracking banners. Those annoying banners on the internet will still be part of our online landscape.
We can build a people-centred, democratic society in which technology works for all. Now, we need to see strong enforcement of the DSA to successfully advance human rights safeguards. The new rules will apply from January 2024. During this transition period, civil society organisations will continue to call on EU authorities to ensure necessary steps are put in place for people to take the power back and stop the excesses of Big Tech companies.