Democratic Implications of the EU’s Digital Services Act // August 31
by Lily Sabol, Assistant Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies
The spread of harmful content online has raised genuine concerns around the world, yet existing models for regulating “big tech” tilt toward the preferences of authoritarian governments. The European Union’s Digital Services Act, passed on July 5, 2022, could serve as a democratic alternative to authoritarian legislative models. Set to be enacted in 2024, the DSA establishes new rules for online platforms with a goal to limit how illegal content spreads online and create a safer and more secure environment for users. Some, however, have pointed out the potential failures of the Act.
Instead of focusing purely on content moderation and removal, the DSA contains requirements for platform transparency, accountability, and due diligence. In the DSA, transparency provisions include requirements for platforms to publish information about how algorithms are used as targeted advertising tools, as well as the regular release of transparency reports. Due diligence processes would encompass risk mitigation measures and audits, which would identify rights-related threats and responses. Overall, the DSA has the potential to make online spaces safer by setting standards and tightening regulation of platform policies and procedures in opposition to models promulgated by authoritarian states like Russia and China. Until the DSA was established, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was one of the most significant pieces of legislation related to platform governance; after the GDPR was enacted, EU leaders saw the need to address additional areas of platform governance.
Through an inclusive process during its development, the DSA could serve as an important multistakeholder model for regulating online platforms and search engines. While policymaking is often inaccessible for civil society, various stakeholders were consulted on this legislation and a variety of civil society-driven recommendations were included in the final bill. The DSA also recommends – though not requires – that platforms hold consultations with civil society on risk assessments and mitigation policies as they work to comply with the legislation. Such work during the implementation phase of the DSA will be crucial to the law’s success.
The DSA, however, has also come under criticism. Some critics say the legislation lends too much power to EU governance bodies to regulate big tech, despite a lack of resources for enforcement. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted some missed opportunities to support human rights and a healthy information space through the DSA, and EU Disinfo Lab pointed out that the regulation overlooks the innate design of platforms that is systematically abused to spread disinformation. As Article19 argued, the DSA may actually dampen online rights because it could lead to an “over-removal of legal content” by platforms concerned about liability. While these concerns are valid, these organizations have also acknowledged that the DSA serves as a starting point toward democratic approaches to platform governance.
The DSA represents an opportunity for civil society to hold online platforms accountable, and its model of inclusive policymaking sets a positive example for other governmental bodies. Governments must take steps – even imperfect ones – to promote the infusion of democratic values into tech platforms and their governance structures.