Digital Directions: August 31, 2022

Insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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  • The EU’s Digital Services Act, passed last month, has implications for the global regulation of online platforms;
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted new disinformation across Africa and enhanced censorship within Russia’s own borders;
  • Authoritarian states aim to dominate global internet governance.

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. 

Russian Disinformation in Africa

Although Moscow agreed to lower its blockade of Ukrainian grain in the Black Sea, implicitly conceding the narrative of Ukrainian responsibility for the blockade, the Kremlin’s influence campaign across Africa regarding the invasion of Ukraine has continued. Other Russian narratives exploit African grievances against Europe and the U.S. To date, the EU and others have proven to be under-resourced in combatting Kremlin-sourced disinformation across Africa.

The Latest Analysis from Key Counter-Disinformation Research Institutions

The European Digital Media Observatory’s Taskforce on Disinformation and the War in Ukraine released a list of 10 recommendations for governments, civil society, and social media platforms. A new survey by the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations investigates best practices in counter-disinformation research. Lastly, an analysis in Tech Policy Press discusses how to best frame disinformation narratives.

Tiktok Amplifies Election-Related Disinformation

Amid concerns of user data privacy violations, TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has become a popular platform for election-related disinformation. In the Philippines, TikTok was a vehicle for incoming president Bongbong Marcos to rewrite the history of his father’s dictatorial rule. Critics say TikTok’s counter-disinformation measures to date have not been adequate. For example, TikTok videos about Kenya’s upcoming election contradict the platform’s policies, yet the videos have not been removed.

Authoritarians Seeking to Dominate Internet Governance

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) recently announced plans to remodel the China-hosted World Internet Conference into a global internet governance body. The body’s founding members include authoritarian states like North Korea and Afghanistan, and it is likely to promote standards that will benefit Chinese companies and support Beijing’s model of tight state control of the internet. Relatedly, a Russian candidate is currently running in the September election for Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union.

The Damage of Internet Shutdowns 

The UN recently releasedreport providing an overview of trends and implications of internet shutdowns. Authoritarians are fond of invoking social stability as a pretext for blocking internet access, threatening rights to free expression and access to information. Internet shutdowns cause severe economic damage and make political violence more likely. According to Top10VPN, the roughly 300 internet shutdowns that have taken place since 2019 have cost economies over 31 billion dollars.

Amplifying Russian Censorship 

Building on a long-term trend of increasingly intensive digital censorship and surveillance, Russia has used its invasion of Ukraine as a pretext for making its internet more restrictive and isolated, adopting new laws and cracking down on the use of VPNs. At the same time, Russia has struggled to ban the service Tor, which encrypts web traffic and routes it over a network of relays to avoid detection. Tor has introduced features to help users avoid censorship.

The International Forum hosted Nury Turkel, Co-Founder of the Uyghur Project, who recently discussed his book, No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs. He highlighted how Chinese surveillance programs have affected oppressed ethnic groups, human rights defenders, and political dissidents.

In a new post for the International Forum’s Power 3.0 blog, Ryan Arick and Ariane Gottlieb summarize trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on democratic values, noting how authoritarian actors employed disinformation campaigns as a response tool.

At the DFRLab’s 360/Open Summit in May, the International Forum’s Kevin Sheives spoke about the necessity of a globally networked civil society response for combatting both sharp power and disinformation.

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