'What is illegal offline is illegal online': EU tightens rules for internet giants

'What is illegal offline is illegal online': EU tightens rules for internet giants
Smartphone users. Credit: Unsplash

Major internet companies such as Meta and Google will have to take stronger action against hate speech and other illegal content in the EU, announced President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

Negotiators from the European Parliament and the 27 Member States reached an agreement on stricter rules last night, and decided that the Digital Services Act (DSA) will impose a series of new obligations on large internet platforms.

"Today's agreement on the Digital Services Act is historic, both in terms of speed and of substance. The DSA will upgrade the ground rules for all online services in the EU," said von der Leyen.

The stricter rules will ensure that the online environment "remains a safe space, safeguarding freedom of expression and opportunities for digital businesses," she said. "It gives practical effect to the principle that what is illegal offline, should be illegal online."

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The emphasis is on keeping illegal content and products off the internet by requiring tech companies such as Meta (which owns Facebook), Google, YouTube, TikTok and Amazon to actively look for things that are illegal and remove them more quickly.

It concerns hate speech and videos spreading terrorist propaganda, for example, among other things: all material that is considered punishable in the EU Member States. They also have to tackle disinformation in a more targeted way.

The greater the size of online platforms, the greater their responsibilities, stressed von der Leyen. "Today's agreement – complementing the political agreement on the Digital Markets Act last month – sends a strong signal: to all Europeans, to all EU businesses, and to our international counterparts."

Algorithm explanations

Additionally, platforms and search engines are also no longer allowed to collect information from users about their ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion in order to advertise on that basis.

They will also be required to better explain a user sees a certain advertisement and who paid for it – as this is currently not always clear. For advertising to minors, there will be stricter conditions as well: they may no longer be shown personalised ads.

The companies will have to provide clear explanations on how their algorithms work, meaning that YouTube will have to explain why it suggests a certain video to you, or that Facebook tells you why your news feed is composed in a certain way, for example.

Platforms must also take action against companies or individuals who try to sell counterfeit or stolen goods from now on.

With great reach comes great responsibility

On Twitter, von der Leyen welcomed the "historic" agreement, saying that it is a strong signal for people, businesses and countries worldwide. "Our new rules will protect users online, and ensure freedom of expression and opportunities for businesses. What is illegal offline will effectively be illegal online in the EU."

The current regulations date from 2000, before the rise of the internet giants, and were therefore very outdated. With the new, stricter regulations, the EU hopes to be able to better control the large influence of social media, without limiting freedom of expression.

The new rules apply to all online services, but become stricter according to the size of the (social impact of the) platforms and search engines. The largest platforms – with at least 45 million users in the EU – have to comply with considerably more rules than smaller ones.

"With the DSA, the time of big online platforms behaving like they are 'too big to care' is coming to an end," Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said, adding that the DSA is setting clear, harmonised obligations for platforms – proportionate to size, impact and risk.

If the platforms do not comply with the rules, they risk heavy fines, up to 6% of their worldwide turnover, or a ban on operating in the EU in case of repeated serious breaches, he stressed.

The agreement still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament and the EU Member States, but this is considered only a formality. The new rules should take effect from 2024.

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