How Will EU’s Digital Services Act Impact Users
The EU Digital Services Act (DSA) brings new rules to thousands of online platforms to provide users with a safer and more transparent online environment.
The DSA will set a “global gold standard” for online platforms, according to Francis Haughen, an ex-Facebook employee and whistleblower. French Digital Minister Cedric O has called the EU’s reforms “potentially the most important in the history of digital regulation”.
So why is the DSA such a big deal? This article will look at which platforms are impacted by the DSA and explore some of the most important proposed benefits to users.
Who’s Covered By the DSA?
Before we explain why the DSA matters, let’s look at who’s covered by the law.
Very Large Online Platforms and Search Engines
The DSA applies to many different types of online services, but the law has a bigger impact on some types of companies than others.
The DSA will have a major effect on “big tech” companies, known as Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs) under the law.
A platform or search engine is a VLOP or VLOSE if around 10% of the EU population (currently 45 million people) actively uses it every month.
The European Commission designated the first round of VLOPs and VLOSEs in late April. Here’s the list.
- Alibaba AliExpress
- Amazon Store
- Apple AppStore
- Google Play
- Google Maps
- Google Shopping
Note that of the 19 platforms listed above, only two (Booking.com and Zalando) are owned by European companies. The rest are from the US and China.
Other Platforms and Services
Beyond VLOPs and VLOSEs, many other types of platforms and services are covered by the DSA. Even small businesses are affected, but they are exempt from some of the rules.
In general, the DSA applies to “intermediary services”, which are grouped into several different types (including “mere conduits”, hosting services, and online platforms).
The following types of online services—and more—are all intermediary services covered by the DSA to some extent:
- Internet service providers
- Cloud service providers
- Publicly-available messaging apps
- Travel and accommodation platforms
- Social networks
- Content-sharing platforms
- App stores
A common feature of intermediaries is that they allow users to share, publish, or transmit content online.
An internet service provider allows people to use the internet. Facebook allows users to publish posts on their timelines. Google Play lets developers sell their apps.
All intermediary services have some responsibilities under the DSA.
Why Is the DSA Important?
Now let’s look at some of the benefits that the DSA will bring to users of online services, according to the EU.
Transparency in Targeted Ads
Most online platforms make money from targeted ads. This means these platforms are monetising the content you provide them, analysing how you use the platform, and allowing advertisers to pay for your attention.
As the European Commission puts it:
“Today, platforms optimise the presentation of information to capture attention and drive revenue, but their users are often unaware of how their systems sort content and how platforms profile them.”
Ad-targeting normally involves collecting information about users’ behaviour (including, sometimes, their behaviour outside of the platform) and “profilng” them (making inferences about their preferences and characteristics).
Advertisers can then pay to display their ads to specific users or groups of users based on these profiles.
The DSA will:
- Ban targeted ads based on:
- Personal data about children, and
- “Special category data” (sensitive personal data about, for example, a person’s race, political views, or health).
- Require platforms to be more transparent about targeted ads. Platforms must make sure that the user can identify:
- When a piece of content is an ad.
- Which company the ad is promoting.
- Who paid for the ad (if different from the above).
- Why the user is receiving the ad, and how they can change any ad-related settings.
Platforms must also provide users with a user-friendly mechanism to disclose whether their own content is an ad (including where a post is sponsored).
The above rules apply to all sorts of online platforms—not just the big ones.
VLOPs and VLOSEs must go further by providing a searchable database containing information about each targeted ad, stored for at least a year after the platform stops running the ad.
Clearer Terms and Conditions
Millions of people in the EU use social media to keep in touch with friends and family, participate in online and “real-life” communities, and promote their small businesses.
This means getting banned or suspended from a social media platform can be a big deal, potentially cutting people off from their communities and hurting their profits.
But at the same time, online platforms must be able to weed out trolls and bad actors—and they have some discretion over who they kick off.
The DSA attempts to balance these competing interests by requiring online platforms to be transparent about their rules and fair in how they apply them.
- Users will get clear information about a platform’s policies, including which decisions are made by AI and which are reviewed by humans.
- Platforms must tell users about any significant changes to their terms and conditions.
- Platforms have to apply their own rules in a “diligent, objective and proportionate” way, taking people’s rights, interests, and freedom of expression into account.
Transparent Processes for Restricting Content
When a platform removes or restricts a user’s content, this can sometimes have a significant impact on the user—particularly if they earn money on the platform.
If a platform makes decision about a piece of content that is suspected to be illegal or in violation of the platform’s terms and conditions, the platform must explain to the user:
- What the decision involves (for example, whether the content was removed, demonetised, or demoted).
- How long the restriction will be in effect and where it applies (if relevant).
- Why the platform made the decision.
- Whether the decision was made using AI.
- Which law the content is suspected to have broken (if any).
- How the content might have violated the platform’s terms and conditions (if relevant).
- How the user can appeal or complain.
This should reduce the number of arbitrary, unfair, or incorrect content moderation decisions online.
Less Illegal Content Online
Another key objective of the DSA is to reduce the amount of illegal content spread through social media and other online platforms.
Illegal content could include posts selling counterfeit goods, child sexual abuse material, or any other content that is illegal in a given EU country.
How will the DSA achieve this?
The idea is to require hosting services (such as social media platforms, web hosting companies, marketplaces, etc.) to set up user-friendly systems to help people report suspected illegal content.
Once a person has reported a piece of suspected illegal content, the platform will be deemed to know about the content and will need to act. If the platform fails to act, it could become legally responsible for hosting the content.
The platform must also tell the person who reported the content what the platform has done in response to the user’s report and explain what happens next.
When Will the DSA Take Effect?
The DSA takes effect in stages. Now that the European Commission has designated VLOPs and VLOSEs, those tech giants have until late August 2023 to implement all the DSA’s requirements.
By 17 February 2024, each EU country must establish Digital Services Coordinator. From this date, the law will apply to every company covered by the DSA.
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