War in Ukraine prompts Europe to introduce new emergency rules for the Internet

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At the beginning On Saturday morning, the European Union (EU) approved a law that would allow authorities to impose a state of emergency on social media sites, search engines and online marketplaces.

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The Crisis Mechanism was one of a long set of Digital Services Act rules aimed at making the Internet more secure. Spurred on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this will give the bloc’s authorities significant influence over how major technology platforms with more than 45 million users in the EU, such as Facebook, TikTok and Amazon, operate during pandemics and wars.

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“It was agreed that in the event of a crisis, such as a threat to public safety or health, the Commission may need very large platforms to limit any urgent threats on its platforms,” says Henna Virkkunen, Finnish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the European People’s Party who took part in the negotiations.

The important rules will also give European authorities new powers to force tech platforms to be more transparent about how their algorithms work, remove more content or products determined to be “illegal”, and restrict ads based on sensitive information such as race, sexual orientation or political affiliation. dark patterns advertisements aimed at children will be prohibited. Penalties for platforms that do not comply can be as high as 6 percent of global turnover.

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The European Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, will be in charge of enforcement, effectively ending a system in which Ireland – the country where most major technology platforms have their European headquarters – is home to the only regulator capable of enforcing the rules . . Europe’s 27 member states will also have greater influence on content moderation on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. “Any national authority will be able to demand the removal of illegal content, no matter where in Europe the platform is installed,” European official Thierry Breton said ahead of the conclusion of negotiations and just hours before the new rules were agreed in Brussels.

In a broad package of rules, the crisis mechanism was one of the most controversial. “The war in Ukraine appears to have created a political opportunity for supporters of tighter restrictions to advance their agenda,” said Daphne Keller, director of platform regulation at the Stanford Center for Cyber ​​Policy, on Thursday. “It’s a perfectly normal policy, if you don’t count the bad law.”

Tech platforms have played a significant role in shaping the public response to both the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell described Russian disinformation about Ukraine is spreading on the European Internet as a “direct threat” to European security. Amazon said in February 2020, banned more than a million products from being sold on its platform that promised to cure or protect people from the coronavirus.

So far, there has been no law in Europe allowing authorities to intervene in platform politics when the bloc faces threats to public health or safety. When EU lawmakers wanted to ban media believed to be spreading Russian propaganda in response to the invasion of Ukraine, such as Sputnik and RT, they relied on the sanctions regime and the platforms’ willingness to cooperate. “We cannot rely solely on the goodwill of the platforms when we face crises, pandemics or wars.” said Breton.

“We have seen how important platforms are [had] in Ukraine. Therefore, if there is some kind of crisis, we need some tools, because we do not have legislation for this,” says Virkkunen. “There might be some other crisis where we don’t have sanctions.”

However, critics of the crisis mechanism are concerned that it concentrates too much power in the hands of the European Commission. Facebook should not make important decisions about the global information space alone, says Jan Penfrath, senior policy adviser at Brussels-based digital rights group EDRi, “but at the same time we don’t want a European chief executive, who is a very political body, based under intense pressure from Member States, especially in crisis situations, to be the only institution that can address this as well.”

Although European legislators have reached a political agreement on a digital services law, the wording and technical details of the regulation have not yet been finalized and there is still uncertainty about what powers the Commission will have over technology platforms during the crisis.

The text agreed in Friday’s talks suggests the Commission could recommend changes to Facebook’s or TikTok’s terms of service and how the platforms moderate or rank content. It could also force platforms to place government-approved information at the top of search results, Penfrath said.

Facebook, Amazon and TikTok declined to comment on the new rules. Google did not respond to a request for comment. “Our main problem with the crisis mechanism from the very beginning was that it would give the European Commission broad powers without proper checks and balances,” says Romain Digno, a politician at Dot Europe, a lobby group that includes Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Google, Apple and Amazon are among its members. Dinho added that due to the late introduction of this measure, it is very difficult to discuss it.

Wikipedia was also concerned that the crisis mechanism would force the platform to interfere with content decisions normally made by the website’s community, according to Jan Gerlach, director of public policy for Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s non-profit parent organization.

For others, the crisis mechanism seems too broad. “What the Commission may require of the platforms is not specifically stated, so this could have very far-reaching implications,” says German MEP Patrick Breuer of the Greens/European Free Alliance. “The definition of an emergency is very broad,” he adds.

For the crisis mechanism to work, it must first be launched by a new council of representatives from each member state. It also includes an expiration clause, meaning that the Commission’s emergency powers over technology platforms will automatically expire after three months.

“All measures under the crisis mechanism will be limited in time and will be accompanied by guarantees of fundamental rights,” says Johannes Barke, European Commission coordinator for research and innovation in the digital economy, adding that the Commission will only be able to extend the three-month period on the recommendation of the board and any use of the anti-crisis mechanism will be made public.

The commission will not directly intervene in the politics of the platforms, says Barke, although it may suggest solutions to some problems, such as hiring more Ukrainian-language content moderators. It is unclear whether the platforms could be subject to sanctions if they reject the Commission’s proposals.

The Digital Services Act is part of a dual piece of legislation that aims to rethink the relationship between European lawmakers and major platforms operating within the bloc, such as Facebook, Google-owned YouTube and Amazon.

Till Digital Markets Law— which was agreed last month — is an attempt to limit the harm that big technology is doing to European markets, the Digital Services Act aims to address the damage that platforms can do to European societies.

In the 16-hour talks, lawmakers also agreed that big tech companies would have to submit annual reports to the Commission on the risks their platforms face, such as illegal content or disinformation, and let EU lawmakers know how they plan to tackle them.

These rules will work in the same way as those that force companies that make new chemicals to report what impact those chemicals might have on the environment before they can sell the product commercially, says Matthias Vermeulen, director of public policy of the data rights agency AWO. “The EU is trying to do something similar for the digital age.”


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