The European Union (EU) is using its Digital Services Act (DSA) to influence top technology platforms to censor objectionable content that proliferates in Europe during the Israel-Hamas war, which includes Americans’ speech, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The DSA took effect in August and requires “very large online platforms” to increase content moderation by clamping down on “disinformation” and other purportedly harmful discourse that spreads in the EU, which includes Americans’ speech due to the global nature of the internet, experts told the DCNF. The EU has used accusations that platforms have not adequately combatted “disinformation” and illegal content as mandated by the DSA as a pretext to send the letters and remind them of the massive penalties for violations.
The EU took the step of sending warning messages to Meta, TikTok, YouTube and X, warning them to adhere to the DSA’s content moderation guidelines during the ongoing war, according to letters posted by EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton between Oct. 10 and 13.
“Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is concerned by the myriad speech restrictions emerging globally in response to the events in Israel and Gaza, including Breton’s warning to social media platforms regarding unspecified ‘illegal content’ and ‘disinformation’ and their obligations under the DSA,” FIRE senior scholar Sarah McLaughlin told the DCNF. “These warnings could have serious consequences not just for Europeans’ free expression on the internet, but for global audiences around the world.”
The DSA applies to companies with more than 45 million users in the EU and it includes fines of up to 6% of their global annual revenue for violations, according to the European Commission (EC). The DSA also enables the EC to ban them from the EU temporarily.
Platforms are incentivized to adopt universal censorship policies rather than create separate ones for the EU and the United States because of the severe consequences for violating the DSA, experts say. Since the internet is global, speech spreading in the EU can come from other regions, including the U.S.
In response to the letters, Meta, TikTok and X have touted their efforts to ramp up content moderation.
Meta has increased fact-checkers’ capabilities to accelerate their accuracy ratings and it is adding more “warning labels,” according to its website. The tech giant decreases the visibility of content rated as “false.”
TikTok will soon release “reminders in Search for certain keywords in Hebrew, Arabic, and English to encourage our community to be aware of potential misinformation, consult authoritative sources, and to remind them of our in-app well-being resources if they need them,” according to its website. Like Meta, it works with fact-checkers and censors based on their ratings by decreasing visibility.
X touted its “Community Notes” feature, which allows users to add context to posts, according to its letter to Breton. Notes are present on over 5,000 posts related to the war.
“It’s no secret, after all, that local speech laws tend to have a habit of bleeding across borders, especially online,” McLaughlin added. “Americans, and anyone concerned about their ability to speak freely on the internet, would be wise to pay attention to regulations on online speech, even ones outside their borders.”
Content moderation under the DSA includes enabling users to “flag” content and for platforms to collaborate with “specialized ‘trusted flaggers’ to identify and remove illegal content,” according to the EC. Furthermore, the DSA “regulates … systemic issues such as disinformation, hoaxes and manipulation during pandemics, harms to vulnerable groups and other emerging societal harms.”
In addition to the warning letters, the EU also opened an investigation into X on Thursday over “the alleged spreading of illegal content and disinformation, in particular the spreading of terrorist and violent content and hate speech,” it announced.
“Frankly, this is not surprising given the EU’s stated goals at the outset, which was to have big tech censor more for content they don’t like,” Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, told the DCNF. “It is a stark contrast as to what some states have asked for in the U.S., which is call for more speech not less and a call for more consumer empowerment over the content they want to see.”
Billionaire X owner Elon Musk told the EC that the platform would comply with the DSA, Reuters reported in October 2022. One of the law’s main priorities is the “mitigation of systemic risks, such as manipulation or disinformation,” according to the EC.
“Thierry Breton’s censorial letters are part of a deeply concerning global pattern where the practice of ‘jawboning’ is being institutionalized and where unelected public officials are appointed grand inquisitors of cyberspace with powers to censor content they deem undesirable, even when the content may not be unlawful,” Justitia CEO Jacob Mchangama told the DCNF.
“The DSA is a law for the European Single Market, it has no extraterritorial effect, it does not apply in the U.S.,” EC Spokesman Johannes Bahrke told the DCNF. “Also: the DSA is not about censorship, to the contrary, it includes important safeguards to preserve the freedom of expression and avoid over-removal.”
X, YouTube, Meta and TikTok did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.
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