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This week EPD was listed among the signatories of two joint civil society statements on the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA). One statement issued by 50 CSOs called for the EU to increase the choice, transparency and oversight over recommender algorithms of online platforms. A second statement calls for EU decision-makers to subject online platforms to risk assessments, to counter the proliferation of harmful behaviour such as gender-based violence on online platforms. Here we explain why the DSA matters so much to democracy. 

The Digital Services Act – DSA for short – is a piece of EU legislation that aims to regulate online platforms such as Facebook, Google, Tik Tok and Amazon. Following the publishing of the draft legislation by the European Commission in December 2020, the European Parliament and European Council are currently adopting their respective positions on the legislation. 

The DSA matters for democracy because it sets the rules over the online platforms we use privately and in public: to connect with friends and family, inform ourselves on issues affecting our lives, consume media and engage in discussions. Four issues in particular are important for regulating our online information space: 

  1. Advertising transparency is essential for countering interference in elections, limiting the spread and monetisation of disinformation, and countering discriminatory practices through advertising. In September 2020, EPD brought together a large coalition setting out exactly what such ad transparency should look like.
  2. Recommender systems decide on the information we consume and have a major role in amplifying disinformation and sensationalist news at the cost of quality news media and media diversity. We need more agency over our information diet, with  personal choice, improved transparency and accountability. 
  3. Risk assessments are essential for identifying and countering violations of fundamental rights and threats to democracy as a result of the operation of online platforms. Such risk assessments need to be conducted in an independent and transparent manner and should be able to trigger changes in the operating mechanisms of platforms. 
  4. Effective oversight requires data access for public interest research into online platforms, as well as strong oversight institutions that can effectively enforce EU regulation. 

As a network of democracy support organisations, we have focused on political advertising on online platforms, with extensive advocacy and research under the Virtual Insanity project. Later this year, the European Commission will publish a legislative proposal regarding online political advertising. While the DSA has the opportunity to tackle systemic challenges in online platforms – such as ad transparency – the regulation of online political advertisements can help ensure political party’s integrity with a more targeted approach focused on political ads. Ahead of the publication of the draft regulation, EPD has provided extensive input through a paper on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP), a roundtable organised with the Open Government Partnership, a civil society consultation organised with DG JUST, participation in Vice President Jourova’s expert group on the EDAP, and joint input with our members to the EU’s online consultation.

While the regulation would only deal with platforms inside Europe, its impact will be global. As shown with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU can be a global standard setter in the regulation of technology. Moreover, the challenges to democracy from online platforms are not confined to the EU’s external borders. Cambridge analytica was first tested in Kenya, and in Myanmar the proliferation of hate speech on online platforms further spurred the genocide against the Rohingya. The DSA will be essential for setting the global standard for platform regulation and it is high time that democracies enforced principles of transparency and oversight to come to grips with the impact of online platforms on democracy.

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