The European Union has made the first step towards a significant overhaul of its core platform regulation, the e-Commerce Directive.
In order to inspire the European Commission, which is currently preparing a proposal for a Digital Services Act Package, the EU Parliament has voted on three related Reports (IMCO, JURI, and LIBE reports), which address the legal responsibilities of platforms regarding user content, include measures to keep users safe online, and set out special rules for very large platforms that dominate users’ lives.
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Ahead of the votes, together with our allies, we argued to preserve what works for a free Internet and innovation, such as to retain the E-Commerce directive’s approach of limiting platforms’ liability over user content and banning Member States from imposing obligations to track and monitor users’ content. We also stressed that it is time to fix what is broken: to imagine a version of the Internet where users have a right to remain anonymous, enjoy substantial procedural rights in the context of content moderation, can have more control over how they interact with content, and have a true choice over the services they use through interoperability obligations.
It’s a great first step in the right direction that all three EU Parliament reports have considered EFF suggestions. There is an overall agreement that platform intermediaries have a pivotal role to play in ensuring the availability of content and the development of the Internet. Platforms should not be held responsible for ideas, images, videos, or speech that users post or share online. They should not be forced to monitor and censor users’ content and communication--for example, using upload filters. The Reports also makes a strong call to preserve users’ privacy online and to address the problem of targeted advertising. Another important aspect of what made the E-Commerce Directive a success is the “country or origin” principle. It states that within the European Union, companies must adhere to the law of their domicile rather than that of the recipient of the service. There is no appetite from the side of the Parliament to change this principle.
Even better, the reports echo EFF’s call to stop ignoring the walled gardens big platforms have become. Large Internet companies should no longer nudge users to stay on a platform that disregards their privacy or jeopardizes their security, but enable users to communicate with friends across platform boundaries. Unfair trading, preferential display of platforms’ own downstream services and transparency of how users’ data are collected and shared: the EU Parliament seeks to tackle these and other issues that have become the new “normal” for users when browsing the Internet and communicating with their friends. The reports also echo EFF’s concerns about automated content moderation, which is incapable of understanding context. In the future, users should receive meaningful information about algorithmic decision-making and learn if terms of service change. Also, the EU Parliament supports procedural justice for users who see their content removed or their accounts disabled.
The focus on fundamental rights protection and user control is a good starting point for the ongoing reform of Internet legislation in Europe. However, there are also a number of pitfalls and risks. There is a suggestion that platforms should report illegal content to enforcement authorities and there are open questions about public electronic identity systems. Also, the general focus of consumer shopping issues, such as liability provision for online marketplaces, may clash with digital rights principles: the Commission itself acknowledged in a recent internal document that “speech can also be reflected in goods, such as books, clothing items or symbols, and restrictive measures on the sale of such artefacts can affect freedom of expression." Then, the general idea to also include digital services providers established outside the EU could turn out to be a problem to the extent that platforms are held responsible to remove illegal content. Recent cases (Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook) have demonstrated the perils of worldwide content takedown orders.
It’s Your Turn Now @EU_Commission
The EU Commission is expected to present a legislative package on 2 December. During the public consultation process, we urged the Commission to protect freedom of expression and to give control to users rather than the big platforms. We are hopeful that the EU will work on a free and interoperable Internet and not follow the footsteps of harmful Internet bills such as the German law NetzDG or the French Avia Bill, which EFF helped to strike down. It’s time to make it right. To preserve what works and to fix what is broken.