Large platforms like X, Facebook and Instagram are now required to be compliant with the EU’s draconian Digital Services Act censorship law, which appears set to become the global standard and enable the European Commission to censor the internet. Dr. Normal Lewis writes about the seemingly unstoppable reforms in Spiked.
Not many people know that November 16th 2022 was the day that freedom of speech died on the internet. This was the day the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) came into law. Under the DSA, very large online platforms (VLOPs) with more than 45 million monthly active users – like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – will have to swiftly remove illegal content, hate speech and so-called disinformation from their platforms. Or they will face fines of up to 6% of their annual global revenue. Larger platforms must be DSA compliant by this summer, while smaller platforms will be obliged to tackle this content from 2024 onwards.
The ramifications of this are immense. Not only will the DSA now enforce the regulation of content on the internet for the first time, but it is also set to become a global standard, not just a European one.
In recent years, the EU has largely realised its ambition to become a global regulatory superpower. The EU can dictate how any company worldwide must behave if it wants to operate in Europe, the world’s second-largest market. As a result, its strict regulatory standards often end up being adopted worldwide by both firms and other regulators, in what is known as the ‘Brussels effect’. Take the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a privacy law which came into force in May 2018. Among many other things, it requires individuals to give explicit consent before their data can be processed. These EU regulations have since become the global standard, and the same could now happen for the DSA.
The EU’s enforcement of GDPR has been somewhat tentative. It has issued only about €1.7 billion in penalties since 2018, according to the Economist, which is peanuts in an industry that generates more than a trillion euros in revenue annually. But the EU seems to have learnt from this: the DSA has enormous enforcement capabilities built into it. The European Commission expects its internal industry watchdog to have over 100 full-time staff by 2024. Plus, contract workers and national experts will be expected to supervise Big Tech’s operations, too. It amounts to what EU internal-markets commissioner Thierry Breton calls a “historic moment in digital regulation”. The VLOPS are expected to fund this enforcement operation themselves, paying up to 0.05% of their global annual turnover each year to the Commission.
This gives the EU an extraordinary amount of power. The regulation of the DSA will be overseen by the Commission itself, not an independent regulator. What’s more, the DSA includes a “crisis-management mechanism”, added last year in a last-minute amendment. The Commission argued it needs to be able to direct how platforms respond to events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Apparently, in a crisis, the “anticipatory or voluntary nature” of obligations on tech companies to tackle disinformation would be insufficient. Under the DSA, the Commission has given itself the power to determine whether such a “crisis” exists, defined as “an objective risk of serious prejudice to public security or public health in the Union”. Given the EU’s willingness to weaponise the ‘rule of law’ against its ideological opponents, such as Poland and Hungary, the potential this gives the EU to abuse this mechanism is worrying indeed.
Not only does this give the EU immense powers for censorship, it also represents a profound technocratic evasion of democratic accountability. The unelected European Commission is forcing Big Tech to police the internet to rein in what the EU deems to be unacceptable speech or disinformation. In so doing, the Commission has empowered itself to impose its values on the rest of us. If this draconian censorship were being enforced by a national government, we would at least be able to vote it out. But this is an altogether different scenario.
Depressing stuff. Worth reading in full.