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Why EU Decided Tech Giants Can’t Police Social Media


For all the promises from politicians to tackle online hate speech and misinformation, they continue to proliferate, polarizing societies and harming the vulnerable. Governments have been reluctant to act, fearing a broad crackdown will see them accused of censorship. After more than a year of internal wrangling, the European Union passed legislation that, according to Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen, could represent a “global gold standard” for regulating social media. Previous frustrated efforts to control the technology giants suggest the hardest work is still to come. 

1. What’s driving this?

We’ve come a long way since the early days when social media were supposed to connect the world and promote truth and mutual understanding. Today, conspiracy theories about U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine can leap from obscure QAnon forums all the way to Fox News. We’ve seen scandals over personal data breaches and the promotion of quack treatments for Covid-19. Events like the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol Hill riot show how misinformation can trigger violence. Allegations last year that content on Facebook encouraged eating disorders and helped to foment genocide in Myanmar increased the pressure for action. 

2. What’s the EU’s plan?

The bloc’s Digital Services Act, voted into law in July, gives governments more power to force the tech giants to take down illegal content ranging from hate speech to terrorist propaganda and ads for unsafe toys. If they don’t, they could face fines running to 6% of their annual revenue. They’ll have to adhere to a code of conduct, allow enforcement agencies to examine the algorithms that decide what posts users see and report back on how they’re dealing with harmful material. If it’s found they’re not doing enough, they could be told to alter the algorithms. Additional powers to combat disinformation could be triggered during a crisis, such as a war or a pandemic. Ads aimed at children — a significant source of revenue for the companies that own Facebook and Google — will be banned. So will the targeting of ads using race, religion and other sensitive information. 

It means the social media giants will no longer be left to police themselves, though much depends on what the EU decides is harmful and how rigorously the rules are enforced. A lot of “fake news” and the misinformation flagged by Haugen isn’t illegal and can’t be taken down unless it violates the platforms’ terms and conditions. The alternative is to stop objectionable content appearing in feeds. But the algorithms that decide what users see are complex, and there’s little precedent to guide EU regulators when they start their work. 

4. How did the big tech firms respond?

They’re concerned that the details of how the DSA will work in practice aren’t clear. Watchdog groups say the tech giants spent record sums on lobbying the EU, especially on the DSA and the Digital Markets Act, another piece of legislation passed in July to stop them abusing their market dominance. The DMA forces Apple Inc. and Google parent company Alphabet Inc. to allow third-party app stores in their products and bans Amazon.com Inc. from ranking its own e-commerce products higher than those of rivals. The big tech firms will also have to make their messaging apps compatible, so users can send messages to contacts using other platforms. The DSA eventually became the more contentious bill after Haugen came to the European Parliament ringing alarm bells over hate speech and harmful content and lawmakers took aim at targeted advertising. 

The EU will need to employ hundreds of people to monitor and enforce the DSA and the DMA. It could be hard and expensive to attract and retain experts who actually understand how the platforms operate. Heavy fines might simply be shrugged off by the cash-rich tech giants. National regulators have never come close to applying the maximum penalties allowed under the EU’s current data rules. There are also technical obstacles. For example, how do you know that someone is too young to be targeted with ads without collecting data on them in the first place? The way the DSA is implemented will be up to the EU’s 27 member states, which all have different legal regimes. Their varying interpretations of what represents illegal hate speech could mean a post is taken down in Germany but left up in Denmark. 

6. Is the EU leading the way here?

The US initially opposed the EU’s new rules, arguing that they unfairly target American companies. Now it’s using them as a model for its own tech regulation. Washington lawmakers have proposed bills that resemble parts of the DSA and DMA, including provisions that would bar the tech giants from using their platforms to promote their own products. Planned legislation in the UK could be even tougher than the EU’s rules on harmful content. Britain’s proposed Online Safety Bill would impose bigger fines and could even mean jail time for executives who fail to comply. However, the plans have changed repeatedly and may not survive the country’s unstable politics. 

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com



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