The Digital Services Act: Is It All That?

The Digital Services Act: Is It All That?

By Madhu Gupta; Getty Images

Earlier this week, the European Union reached a landmark agreement and agreed to a new regulatory package known as the Digital Services Act – this package places new regulations on big tech companies and other players in the digital space in an effort to curb the spread of disinformation on social media platforms. The Digital Services Act has been hailed as the future of social media regulation, with key players like Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen hailing the DSA as the new “global gold standard” with the potential to inspire other countries to “pursue new rules that would safeguard our democracies.” U.S. policymakers have also already expressed the hope that the DSA will guide the United States’ future social media regulatory policy, while advocacy organizations have referred to the DSA as the “Paris Agreement of the internet”. Despite the high praise, however, the Digital Services Act is still only a starting point when it comes to comprehensive social media regulation.

A closer look at the Digital Services Act reveals a number of potential gaps – most importantly, the Digital Services Act still relies on social media companies to develop self regulatory policies for their social media platforms. The aim of the Digital Services Act is to create a safer digital space online that protects the fundamental rights of users, but the law itself does not go so far as to establish any new digital rights for users, like a right to digital privacy. The focus of the DSA is transparency – Google, Meta and other large players will be forced to give the state more transparency into their algorithms, as well as provide researchers key data to “give insight into how online risks evolve.” In terms of actually classifying and dealing with the spread of disinformation, however, the large platforms themselves will be the authors of digital strategies to deal with misinformation during crises.

This presents a massive problem, because social media companies have been historically ineffective when it comes to dealing with disinformation on their platforms – the entire reason for state intervention is this ineffectiveness. Facebook’s attempt to flag disinformation on their platform involved the platform contracting outside fact-checkers to review news posted on the website – in the name of non-partisanship, however, Facebook ended up hiring the Daily Caller as a fact checker, despite the Daily Caller’s known ties to white nationalist organizations. Twitter attempted to label misleading tweets as well, but did nothing to stop their continued spread through screenshots, which allowed misleading information to continue to thrive. These failures highlight the basic problem with allowing social media companies to self regulate, further illuminating the largest failure of the DSA – social media companies are primarily motivated by profit, which their targeting algorithms provide. As a result, they are incentivized to implement moderate solutions to disinformation, as a more comprehensive solution would force them to change their algorithm, thereby making their main moneymaker less effective.

Disinformation poses a security threat that grows by the day – the spread of conspiracy theories on social media platforms incited the Jan 6th insurrection, and widespread COVID-19 and vaccine disinformation has led many to distrust medical advice to their own detriment. Addressing this problem, however, requires a stronger policy than the Digital Services Act provides – we must start establishing unique digital rights for online users, as social media is a unique digital space that cannot be covered by existing law. In addition to this, the state should get more involved with the processes for editing social media algorithms to prevent disinformation – without state involvement, the dangerous sections of these algorithms are unlikely to change. The Digital Services Act deserves commendation, but it is only a starting point – disinformation regulation will require a more comprehensive approach that puts citizens first, not companies.

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