Draft EU Laws: Tech Giants Will Have One Hour to Remove Terror Propaganda, Or Face Large Fines

By James Carstensen | December 16, 2020 | 8:09pm EST
(Photo by Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – A pair of draft European Union laws propose to increase pressure on tech giants in response to anti-competitive behavior, dissemination of terrorist propaganda, and political interference, with violators facing measures including substantial fines and service suspension.

The European Commission announced the draft Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) on Tuesday, saying the aim is to address platforms' “vulnerabilities against manipulation,” such as the spread of political disinformation, hoaxes or manipulation during pandemics.

Facebook and Twitter in particular have been under increasing scrutiny by government regulators in recent years, particularly over the use of political advertisements funded by foreign (for example, Russian) interests, and the proliferation of terrorist propaganda, such as online recruitment by groups like ISIS.

Concerns over business practices seen to reap profits at the cost of personal privacy have also been targeted by U.S. and E.U. regulators, with the Federal Trade Commission imposing a record $5 billion fine on Facebook last year.

If approved by the European Parliament, the legislation would see fines of up to six percent of global revenue for serious breaches, compared to a four percent maximum under the E.U.’s current General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules.

The E.U. would also be empowered to suspend a service entirely in the case of  “rogue platforms refusing to comply with important obligations and thereby endangering people's life and safety.”

The measures would apply to companies outside the bloc that offer services to at least 10 percent (45 million) of the E.U.’s population – tech firms defined as “gatekeepers” for their perceived dominant entrenched market positions. They would include U.S. tech giants Google, Apple (for its iPhone App Store), Facebook, and Twitter.

These “gatekeepers” companies would be required to respond promptly to illegal content, including by deleting terrorist propaganda, or adverts for the sale of illegal goods, within an hour of it being reported by an E.U. authority.

In a separate move, Britain on Tuesday announced fines of up to 10 percent of annual global turnover on tech platforms that fail to remove illegal content quickly.

The E.U. proposals are drawing mixed responses, with critics pointing to their global reach and the impact on freedom of expression.

European Pirate Party lawmaker Patrick Breyer voiced concern that the more authoritarian E.U. member states – he cited Hungary and Poland – could leverage the rules as a political censorship tool.

As an example, Breyer said the Hungarian government, under E.U. criticism for restricting press freedom, could order the deletion of material it deems illegal in another member state, for example in Germany, even if that material is not illegal in Germany.

Christoph Schmon, international policy director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit defending civil liberties online, called the initiative “a mixed bag with some promising proposals.”

“The proposed rules take particular aim at companies outside the Union, such as those in the U.S. that offer services to E.U. users,” Schmon said

In an op-ed with analyst Karen Gullo, Schmon wrote that “the criteria for imposing the duties is not clear, and we’re concerned that if non-E.U. platforms are obligated to have legal representation in the E.U., some will decide against offering services in the E.U.”

Although the proposals acknowledge the risk of silencing free speech, they said, problematic provisions remain such as a requirement for platforms to report “certain types of illegal content” – exactly what that means is unclear – to E.U. authorities.

“Rules on supervision, investigation, and enforcement deserve in-depth scrutiny from the European Parliament and the Council,” they wrote. The European Council is responsible for reviewing draft laws before they can take effect, which is expected to take over a year. Once approved, the laws would be directly adopted across the E.U.

Facebook, which has been critical in the past of strict privacy regimes such as Germany’s, said it supports the proposals, saying they were “on the right track to help preserve what is good about the Internet.”

“We have long called for regulation on harmful content and have actively contributed to several European initiatives in this area, including the E.U. Code of Conduct on hate speech,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Taking the opportunity to swipe at rival Apple, he said, “We hope the DMA will also set boundaries for Apple. Apple controls an entire ecosystem from device to app store and apps, and uses this power to harm developers and consumers, as well as large platforms like Facebook.”

Facebook is unhappy about Apple’s recent introduction of a privacy option to block third-party advertisers – such as Facebook.

Facebook recently took advantage of Britain’s departure from the E.U., announcing plans to move its British users out of the E.U.s privacy jurisdiction, and will have them sign user agreements with its U.S. service.

Although such shifts would not enable the platforms to bypass the proposed E.U. rules on content moderation, the move raises the question of whether British users would then fall under U.S. jurisdiction, which lacks a federal equivalent to the E.U.’s GDPR and is thus seen as offering offer weaker privacy protection for users.

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