The revolutionary European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) is finally in effect and is poised to free users from algorithmic oppression by increasing their control over the content they view and engage with. This legislation comes as a sharp contrast and departure from the long established immunity set out by US Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act and it will be interesting to see how platforms will comply with this much needed reality check and whether this will spur similar reform in other places of the world.
We’re bringing our European values into the digital world.
With strict rules on transparency and accountability, our Digital Services Act aims to protect our children, societies and democracies.
As of today, very large online platforms must apply the new law.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) August 25, 2023
The Purpose of the DSA
The main point of the DSA is to foster safer online environments. Under the new rules, online platforms must implement ways to prevent and remove posts containing illegal goods, services, or content while simultaneously giving users the means to report this type of content.
Additionally, the DSA bans targeted advertising based on personal characteristics, such as sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs and puts restrictions on targeting ads to children. It also requires online platforms to provide more transparency on how their algorithms work.
Most importantly, the DSA requires tech giants to give users the right to opt out of recommendation systems and profiling, share key data with researchers and authorities, cooperate with crisis response requirements, and perform external and independent auditing.
While the EU doesn’t require smaller companies to comply with the DSA just yet, “very large platforms” designed as such in April are now bound by the DSA.
Under the DSA, large online platforms (or very large online search engines) are those with over 45 million monthly users in the EU. The following 19 platforms and search engines fall into that category:
- Alibaba AliExpress
- Amazon Store
- Apple App Store
- Google Maps
- Google Play
- Google Search
- Google Shopping
The EU will require each of these platforms to update their user numbers at least every six months. If a platform has less than 45 million monthly users for an entire year, they’ll be removed from the list.
Many of these companies have already outlined the ways in which they’re going to comply with the DSA. Here’s a brief overview of the most notable ones.
While Google says it already complies with some of the policies envisioned by the DSA, including the ability to give YouTube creators to appeal video removals and restrictions, Google announced that it’s expanding its Ads Transparency Center to meet the requirements outlined by the legislation.
The company also committed to expanding data access to researchers to provide more information about “how Google Search, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Play and Shopping work in practice.” It will also improve its transparency reporting and analyze potential “risks of illegal content dissemination, or risks to fundamental rights, public health or civic discourse.”
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is working to expand its Ad Library, which currently compiles the ads shown on its platforms. The company will soon start displaying and archiving all the ads that target users in the EU while also including the parameters used to target the ads, as well as who was served the ad.
As part of its push toward transparency, Meta released a lengthy report about how its algorithm works across Facebook and Instagram. It will also start allowing European users to view content chronologically on Reels, Stories, and Search on both Facebook and Instagram — without being subject to its personalization engine.
This may actually make me go back to using Meta products, but I will require VPN.
Similar to the measures Meta is rolling out, TikTok has also announced that it’s making its algorithm optional for users in the EU. When the algorithm is disabled, users will see videos from “both the places where they live and around the world” in their For You and Live feeds instead of videos based on personal interests.
It will also enable users to view content chronologically on their Following and Friends feeds. TikTok is making some changes to its advertising policies as well. For European users aged 13 to 17, TikTok will stop showing personalized ads based on their activity in the app.
I’m already somewhat jealous!! To me, chronological view is a highly relevant feature, although I disagree that I need to follow anyone in order to sort content chronologically. The whole game of following and followers is honestly getting old. This was the model from 15 to 20 years ago when there were two social media platforms and everyone was on them. There are so many platforms these days, you can’t possibly find everyone on the same platform, and even if you find them there, it doesn’t mean they will post there. I don’t stay long enough anywhere to follow all the people I find interesting or care about. Since the pandemic, the single most reliable way to effectively “follow” someone is to find their source website.s and bookmark their URL’s. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that (1) they will post on the platform where you follow them, (2) that the algorithm will show you what you want to see, (3) or that they won’t happen to be shadow-banned at the time you follow them.
Before we know how algorithms single out and shadow-ban human creators, while boosting paid and targeted traffic, bot-bombing and AI generated content, no platform will be 100% reliable. Users now have built many defense mechanisms against algorithmic confusion, one of them being to completely divest from certain platforms, and compartmentalize their attention. Focus is now increasingly on moment to moment engagement with information which is best organized through keywords or hashtags, not who you follow or who follows you back (a.k.a. “friend”). Regardless of my personal preferences, it does help to have control over the time-frame of content, so I may begin using a VPN to benefit from the DSA. It is very likely that I will entirely stop using the North American version of very large platforms.
Snapchat, a platform most active users in this world grew up with, will also give EU-based users the option to opt out of personalized feeds on its Discover and Spotlight pages and has also published reports on how it ranks the posts on these feeds. The company has committed to providing users with more information about why their posts or account has been removed and will give them the tools they need to appeal the decision.
In addition, Snapchat will no longer serve personalized ads to European Snapchat users aged 13 to 17. It will also create an archive of targeted advertisements it shows in the EU and will give European Snapchat users over the age of 18 more control over the ads they see.
Enforcement And Non-Compliance
Online platforms that don’t comply with the DSA’s rules face monetary fines of up to 6 percent of their global turnover. According to the EU Commission, the Digital Services Coordinator and the Commission will have the power to “require immediate actions where necessary to address very serious harms.” A platform continually refusing to comply could result in a temporary suspension in the EU.
The EU is already seeing some companies push back on the DSA. In July, Amazon filed a petition that asks the EU to reevaluate its classification as a very large online platform, claiming that it’s getting “unfairly singled out.” German retailer Zalando also filed a lawsuit against the EU Commission, similarly claiming that it doesn’t meet the definition of a very large online platform.
You bet, it is the first time I hear of Zelando, a niche luxury-goods outlet. It did pop out of the page for me when going through the list of very large platforms. As for Amazon, while certainly being a very large platform, it is neither a social media platform, nor a search engine, so clearly not all the rules will apply to Amazon. It remains that Amazon does a lot of advertising and data sharing, so I don’t see how it wouldn’t fall within the scope of the DSA.
I will follow all developments around the DSA with great interest.
 I rewrote this sentence 3 times because it was grammatically incorrect. I am sure Chat GPT would have done a better job than me there, except it would’ve expressed the same idea in 3300 words. Proof I’m not a bot.