EU’s Digital Services Act ‘must not become a paper tiger’

The DSA includes new rules that will require big tech platforms – including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to assess and manage systemic risks posed by their services, such as advocacy of hatred and the spread of disinformation. 

In the early hours of April 23, European Union policy makers agreed on the final format of a law that will hand the authorities new powers to force tech platforms to be more transparent about how their algorithms work, to remove more content or products defined as “illegal”, and to restrict advertising based on a sensitive information, such as race, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. 

The European Commission, which first proposed the legislation, known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) in 2020, says that it sets out an unprecedented new standard for the accountability of online platforms regarding illegal and harmful content.  

It is intended to provide better protection for internet users and their fundamental rights, as well as define a single set of rules for the internal market, helping smaller platforms to scale up.  

“[The DSA] gives practical effect to the principle that what is illegal offline, should be illegal online,” according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “The greater the size, the greater the responsibilities of online platforms.” 

Fines for platforms that don’t comply could reach as high as six per cent of global turnover, while tech giants could also be required to take certain measures in the event of a crisis, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine – something that has been dubbed a “digital state of emergency”. 

The DSA contains EU-wide due diligence obligations that will apply to all digital services that connect consumers to goods, services, or content, including new procedures for faster removal of illegal content as well as comprehensive protection for users’ fundamental rights online. 

Start-up exemption

The DSA, likely to take effect on January 1, 2024, will apply to all online intermediaries providing services in the EU, but the obligations it introduces are proportionate to the nature of the services concerned and tailored to the number of users, meaning that very large online platforms (VLOPs) and very large online search engines (VLOSEs) will be subject to more stringent requirements.  

Services with more than 45 million monthly active users in the European Union will fall into the VLOP and VLOSE categories. 

To safeguard the development of start-ups and smaller enterprises in the internal market, micro and small enterprises with under 45 million monthly active users in the EU will be exempted from certain new obligations. 

For online marketplaces meanwhile, given the important role they play in the daily lives of European consumers, the DSA will impose a duty of care towards merchants who sell their products or services on their online platforms. 

Marketplaces will have to collect and display information on the products and services sold in order to ensure that consumers are properly informed. 

“Platforms should be transparent about their content moderation decisions, prevent dangerous disinformation from going viral and avoid unsafe products being offered on marketplaces. We need to ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services can pose to society and citizens,” says Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner responsible for digitalisation. 


Human rights groups have welcomed the DSA, with Amnesty International calling it a “watershed moment”. 

“The DSA moves us towards an online world that better respects our human rights by effectively putting the brakes on big tech’s unchecked power,” says Claudia Prettner, legal and policy adviser at Amnesty Tech. 

“For too long, our most intimate data has been weaponised to undermine our right to privacy, amplify disinformation, fuel racism, and even influence our own beliefs and opinions. The DSA will finally protect EU citizens from intrusive data harvesting and ads that use personal information – such as religious beliefs, political opinion or sexual preferences – in ways we would have never expected or wanted,” she adds. 

She also says, however, that the DSA is a “missed opportunity” to go further and phase out “all invasive surveillance-based advertising practices to truly uphold people’s rights to privacy, data protection and non-discrimination”. 

“It is now crucial that the DSA is robustly enforced so that it does not turn into a mere paper tiger. It is also vital that other jurisdictions around the world follow suit and adopt strong laws to further protect people from the harms caused by big tech’s surveillance-based business models.” 

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