The European Union squeezes the platforms

9 minutes
The European Union squeezes the platforms
"Art collage of Parthenon surrounded by screens, data flows and algorithms", interpreted by Adobe Firefly.

A couple of weeks ago, European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton visited Twitter's San Francisco offices to "stress test" the company on its ability to operate legally in Europe. "The company is taking this exercise very seriously," Breton said after the meeting, which Elon Musk joined via video call and which seemed more like a PR stunt than an oversight action. On a two-day tour of California, the commissioner also took photos with Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and OpenAI's Sam Altman.

The Digital Services Act (DSA) was issued by the European Union in October last year, and establishes a series of requirements for Internet platforms regarding illegal content, advertising, disinformation and transparency. As part of its implementation, the European Commission drew up a list of companies that will have to comply with the DSA as of next August, which includes all massive social media: TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter.

For academic Daphne Keller, the "stress test" of which Commissioner Breton speaks is as theatrical as the announced cage match between Musk and Zuckerberg. As reported by The Guardian, the European regulator's express visit allowed for an assessment of Twitter's controls against Russian disinformation, fake news and child sexual exploitation content. "I can't imagine a test that can replicate the real-world problems of scale, complexity, value judgments and usage patterns," Keller opined.

Underlying this criticism is the question of the standards imposed by the DSA and the real capacity of the European Union to oversee compliance - all of which will impact the conversation in Latin America. The implementation of the DSA also coincides with the entry into force of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) in Europe, which seeks to ensure an open and fair digital market.

Below we take a look at both and point out some possible tensions and repercussions for the region.

DSA: the time for obligations is approaching

In April of this year, it became known which technology companies would be considered "very large online platforms", the DSA's redundant designation for those who will have to assume the greatest obligations in terms of the number of users in the European Union. The group includes 19 social networking, commerce and other service companies including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, Amazon, Booking, Google and Wikipedia, among others. As of August 25, these companies must:

  • Stop displaying ads based on sensitive data such as users' religion or political ideology.
  • Submit risk assessments showing how their moderation, recommendation and advertising systems may influence the dissemination and amplification of illegal content or affect the freedom of expression, privacy or equality of their users.
  • Submit to external audits that analyze your plans to mitigate the risks derived from your activity.
  • Publish a repository of information about your advertisements in which it is possible to consult the content of the advertisement, who publishes it, the period in which it was on air and the number of users reached.

DMA: guardian charges

Gatekeepers is the DMA's way of referring to companies with significant market power in the European economic area and which will therefore have to comply with rules to mitigate concentration or abuse of dominant position. Last Monday, Commissioner Thierry Breton made it known that Alphabet - Google's parent company -, Bytedance - TikTok's parent company -, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, will have the obligations in charge of gatekeepers, among which are the following:

  • Allow users to easily uninstall pre-installed applications or change the configuration of operating systems, virtual assistants or browsers that direct to products and services of those same companies.
  • Allow users to cancel subscriptions as easily as they sign up for them.
  • Not to track end users outside the platform service for the purpose of sending them personalized advertising.
  • Messaging services will also have to be interoperable in their basic functions -such as calls, text messages and video calls- with other similar services. Thus, for example, Whatsapp would have to be able to receive and send messages to applications such as Signal or Telegram, in the same way that emails can be sent to different addresses.

The requirements of both standards generate tensions and challenges in their implementation that we will see in play in the coming months. For example, there is an underlying paradox regarding the last point of the DMA's messaging services. Although interoperability has been a constant demand from civil society, some analysts warn of the risks to users' privacy, since it is not clear how end-to-end encryption could be preserved in interconnected systems with different levels of security.

Moreover, central to the DSA are reporting obligations, which must include "accurate" reporting rates on automated moderation systems. According to a recent academic study, the term is ambiguous and difficult to apply: "the term 'accuracy' itself leaves the technical implementation unspecified, and will need clarification through administrative guidelines or legislative amendments". The same criticism could be made of the audits required by the DSA, a practice unheard of in the industry and a lot of tactical work.

Without being contradictory, the DMA and DSA are on different tracks: while the former aims for a dynamic and less concentrated market, the latter seeks to establish standards and oversight for content moderation, which is more feasible with few players in the sector. In one way or another, the European Union has long since taken the lead in the regulation of social platforms and networks, a process that is being closely followed by several Latin American countries, starting with Brazil.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress remains deadlocked between Republicans and Democrats, limited to public hearings and the perorations of legislators. On the other side we are left with theatrical acts such as the one made by Commissioner Breton in California, who, however, has a couple of aces up his sleeve to sit at the table with the Silicon Valley power players.

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