The storm on the Capitol raises questions of network policy: Should and should a social media company mute a head of state if, like US President Donald Trump, he incites violence? How can Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Co. be made to delete threats more quickly without restricting freedom of expression? After several tech companies have banned Trump and many of his supporters from their networks, these questions are being discussed with renewed urgency in Europe too.
If the EU has its way, it should be answered by the legislature in future and no longer by the networks themselves. “Their business models have developed free of all rules. Something has grown there that we can no longer ignore,” says Pedro Siza Vieira , Portugal’s Minister of Economic Affairs. His country has just taken over the European Council Presidency. The corporations are to be brought under control with two laws proposed by the EU Commission in December.
The “Digital Services Act” (DSA for short) is intended to regulate uniformly for the EU how platforms should behave if prohibited content is shared on their pages, such as calls for violence: when is something deleted and how can it be users defend themselves against deletions? The second law (Digital Markets Act, or DMA for short) primarily affects the competitive opportunities of smaller platforms. “If we don’t find any rules now so that the digital markets can develop, we will regret it,” says Vieira. Portugal will speedily push ahead with negotiations for both laws.
A minister calls corporate power “shocking”
The DSA should also oblige the large corporations to identify “systemic risks” on their platforms and to make suggestions on how these can be minimized. It is particularly dangerous when accounts with “particularly high reach” distribute such posts – a definition that applies to Trump, but also to many European politicians. Calls to disrupt elections or lies about vaccines could be such risks. However, the DSA leaves it open as to which specific content should be prohibited on the networks and which not: each state should continue to decide for itself. How platforms should deal with politicians like Trump will remain a political question in the future.
Clément Beaune, France’s European Minister and confidante of President Emmanuel Macron, said in Brussels on Tuesday that one could think what one wanted of Trump’s statements. But it is “shocking” that a private company can decide alone who is allowed to speak where. Chancellor Angela Merkel had announced on Monday that it was politics that had to define the rules for the platforms: “The complete blocking of an account of an elected president is problematic,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
Vice-Commission President Thierry Breton used the storm on the Capitol to advertise the DSA with drastic words: The chaos in Washington is the “9/11” of social media, he wrote in a guest post for Politico. Just as the attacks in 2001 changed security policy, the role of social networks has suddenly changed. By blocking Trump’s accounts, they finally recognized their duty to curb “illegal viral” content. Breton wrote that with the DSA, the EU had taken the first step towards global corporate regulation. He offered the future US President Joe Biden to jointly draft coherent rules for the whole world.
Corporations are very careful about what is happening in Brussels
Ben Scott is convinced that a law like the one proposed by the EU Commission with the DSA would have prevented an outbreak of violence like that at the Capitol. The American worked in the State Department under Hillary Clinton and today heads the Reset lobby group in London, which aims to curb the power of the largest tech companies. He says: “The events in the US show how urgently the EU proposals need to be implemented. They will increase the pressure to pass the DSA and DMA.”
The corporations are likely to tighten their rules against certain content before it comes into force – as was the case with the General Data Protection Regulation, those EU rules that are ascribed global impact. Nobody should underestimate the fact that corporations are closely following what is happening in Brussels. The EU is a pain point for corporations: “This is a market of almost half a billion people. When Australia wanted to regulate Google and Facebook, they threatened to withdraw from the country. They certainly won’t do that in the EU. That’s what it is for just too big. “