Government censorship of public online discourse in the West’s ostensibly liberal democracies has been largely covert until now, as revealed by the Twitter Files. But thanks to the EU’s Digital Services Act, it is about to become overt.
Next month, a little-known development will occur that could end up having huge repercussions for the nature of public discourse on the Internet all over the planet. August 25, 2023 is the date by which big social media platforms will have to begin fully complying with the European Union’s Digital Services Act, or DSA. The DSA, among many other things, obliges all “Very Large Online Platforms”, or VLOPs, to speedily remove illegal content, hate speech and so-called disinformation from their platforms. If not, they risk fines of up to 6% of their annual global revenue.
The Commission has so far compiled a list of 19 VLOPs and VLOSEs (Very Large Online Search Engines), most of them from the US, that will have to begin complying with the DSA in 50 days’ time:
Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs):
Smaller platforms will have to begin tackling illegal content, hate speech and disinformation from 2024 onwards, assuming the legislation is effective.
Ominously, as Robert Kogon reports for Brownstone.org (granted, not the most popular source of information on NC, but it’s a good, well researched piece), the DSA “includes a ‘crisis response mechanism’ (Art. 36) that is clearly modeled on the European Commission’s initially ad hoc response to the conflict in Ukraine and which requires platforms to adopt measures to mitigate crisis-related ‘misinformation.'”
In a speech in early June, EU Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, made it crystal clear which country is the current prime target of the EU’s censorship agenda (no points for guessing):
Cooperation among signatories and the high number of new organisations willing to sign the new Code of Practice show that it has become an effective and dynamic instrument to fight disinformation. However, progress remains too slow on crucial aspects, especially when it comes to dealing with pro-Kremlin war propaganda or independent access to data…
As we prepare for the 2024 EU elections, I call on platforms to increase their efforts in fighting disinformation and address Russian information manipulation, and this in all Member States and languages, whether big or small.
Meet the “Enforcer”
The EU is offering tech companies little in the way of wiggle room. When Twitter withdrew from the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation in late May, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, issued a fiery reprimand as well as an unveiled threat — on Twitter of all places:
Jourová also laid into Twitter, saying the platform had mistakenly chosen the path of “confrontation.”
Days later, Breton announced he was visiting Silicon Valley to “stress test” US tech giants, including Twitter, to see how well prepared they are for the launch of the Digital Services Act on August 25. Calling himself the “enforcer”, serving the “will of the state and the people” (as if the two were the same things), Breton remind tech platforms that the EU’s DSA would transform its code of practice on mis- and disinformation into a code of conduct. From Politico:
“We are going there, but don’t want to be vocal before because I don’t want to speak too much. But we offer this and I’m happy that some platforms took our proposal,” Breton said of the non-binding compliance checks. “I am the enforcer. I represent the law, which is the will of the state and the people.”
“It’s a voluntary basis, so we don’t force anyone” to join the code of practice on disinformation, Breton said. “I just reminded (Musk and Twitter) that by August 25, it will become a legal obligation to fight disinformation.”
While Twitter may have left the EU’s voluntary code of practice, many of its other actions suggest it is complying with, rather than defying, the EU’s new rules on disinformation. After all, many other Big Tech platforms have not signed the code of practice, including Amazon, Apple and Wikipedia, but will be subject to the DSA’s obligatory requirements, as long as they want to continue operating in Europe. Also, as Kogon documents, recent programming that has gone into the Twitter algorithm includes “safety labels” to restrict the visibility of alleged “misinformation”:
The general categories of “misinformation” used exactly mirror the main areas of concern targeted by the EU in its efforts to “regulate” online speech: “medical misinfo” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, “civic misinfo” in the context of issues of electoral integrity, and “crisis misinfo” in the context of the war in Ukraine.
In its January submission to the EU (see reports archive here), in the section devoted precisely to its efforts to combat Ukraine-war-related “misinformation,” Twitter writes (pp. 70-71):
“We … use a combination of technology and human review to proactively identify misleading information. More than 65% of violative content is surfaced by our automated systems, and the majority of remaining content we enforce on is surfaced through regular monitoring by our internal teams and our work with trusted partners.”
Moreover, some Twitter users recently received notices informing them that they are not eligible to participate in Twitter Ads because their account has been labelled “organic misinformation.” As Kogon asks: “Why in the world would Twitter turn away advertising business?”:
The answer is simple and straightforward: because none other than the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation requires it to do so in connection with the so-called “demonetization of disinformation.”
Ultimately, Kogon notes, once the DSA comes into full effect, in 50 days’ time, if Elon Musk stays true to his word on freedom of speech and chooses to defy the EU’s “permanent task force on disinformation”, the Commission will mobilise the entire arsenal of punitive measures at its disposal, in particular the threat or application of fines of 6% of the company’s global turnover. In other words, the only way for Twitter to actually defy the EU is to leave the EU.
That is something most tech platforms can but will not do, due to the huge impact it would have on their bottom line. One possible exception to this rule appears to be the Toronto-based streaming platform Rumble, which in November disabled access to its services in France after the French government demanded the multinational company remove Russian news sources from its platform.
EU Commission: Judge and Jury
So, who in the EU will get to define what actually constitutes mis- or disinformation?
Surely it will be the job of an independent regulator or a judicial authority with at least clear procedural parameters and no or few conflicts of interest. At least that is what one would hope.
The ultimate decider of what constitutes mis- or dis-information, possibly not just in the EU but across multiple jurisdictions around the world (more on that later), will be the European Commission. That’s right, the EU’s power-hungry, conflict-riddled, Von der Leyen-led executive branch. The same institution that is in the process of dynamiting the EU’s economic future through its endless backfiring sanctions on Russia and which is mired in Pfizergate, one of the biggest corruption scandals of its 64-year existence. Now the Commission wants to take mass censorship to levels not seen in Europe since at least the dying days of the Cold War.
In this task the Commission will have, in its own words, “enforcement powers similar to those it has under anti-trust proceedings,” adding that “an EU-wide cooperation mechanism will be established between national regulators and the Commission.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) broadly supports many aspects of the DSA, including the protections it provides on user rights to privacy by prohibiting platforms from undertaking targeted advertising based on sensitive user information, such as sexual orientation or ethnicity. “More broadly, the DSA increases the transparency about the ads users see on their feeds as platforms must place a clear label on every ad, with information about the buyer of the ad and other details.” It also “reins in the powers of Big Tech” by forcing them to “comply with far-reaching obligations and responsibly tackle systemic risks and abuse on their platform.”
But even the EFF warns that the new law “provides a fast-track procedure for law enforcement authorities to take on the role of ‘trusted flaggers’ and uncover data about anonymous speakers and remove allegedly illegal content – which platforms become obligated to remove quickly.” The EFF also raises concerns about the dangers posed by the Commission’s starring role in all of this:
Issues with government involvement in content moderation are pervasive and whilst trusted flaggers are not new, the DSA’s system could have a significant negative impact on the rights of users, in particular that of privacy and free speech.
And free speech and a free press are the foundation stones of any genuine liberal democracy, as notes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
The First Amendment protects our freedom to speak, assemble, and associate with others. These rights are essential to our democratic system of governance. The Supreme Court has written that freedom of expression is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would cease to exist. Since its founding, the ACLU has advocated for broad protection of our First Amendment rights in times of war and peace, to ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains vigorous and unrestricted.
A Transatlantic “Wish List”
The DSA and the Biden Administration’s proposed RESTRICT Act (which Yves dissected back in April) were among the topics discussed during Russell Brand’s recent interview of Matt Taibbi. Both bills, said Taibbi, are essentially a “wish list that has been passed around” by the transatlantic elite “for some time,” including at a 2021 gathering at the Aspen Institute:
The governments want absolute, full and complete access to all data that these platforms provide. And then they want a couple of other things that are really important. They want to have the authority to come in and moderate or at least be part of the process of moderation. And they also want people who are called trusted “flaggers” — that’s how they’re described in the European law — to have access to these platforms as well. What they mean by that are these outside quasi-governmental agencies who tell these platforms what they can and cannot print about things like vaccine safety.
In other words, the legal environment for free speech is set to become even more hostile in Europe. And possibly not just Europe. As Norman Lewis writes for the British online news website Spiked, the DSA will not only force the regulation of content on the Internet, but could also become a global standard, not just a European one:
In recent years, the EU has largely realised its ambition to become a global regulatory superpower. The EU can dictate how any company worldwide must behave if it wants to operate in Europe, the world’s second-largest market. As a result, its strict regulatory standards often end up being adopted worldwide by both firms and other regulators, in what is known as the ‘Brussels effect’. Take the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a privacy law which came into force in May 2018. Among many other things, it requires individuals to give explicit consent before their data can be processed. These EU regulations have since become the global standard, and the same could now happen for the DSA.
The GDPR is not the only EU regulation that has gone global. A few weeks ago, the World Health Organization announced that it will be adopting the EU’s expiring digital vaccine passport as a global standard, as we warned would happen over a year ago.
Of course, when it comes to mass digital censorship Washington is on a similar path to the EU (albeit in the face of stiffer public and judicial resistance). So too is the UK government, which was recently ranked in the third tier of the Index on Censorship, behind countries such as Chile, Jamaica, Israel and virtually all other western European states, due to the “chilling effect” of government policies and the policing, intimidation and, in the case of Julian Assange, imprisonment of journalists.
If approved by the House of Lords, the Online Safety Bill would give telecoms regulator Ofcom the power to force chat app makers and social media companies to monitor conversations and posts before they are sent for what is permissible to say and send and what is not. It will essentially put an end to end-to-end encryption, which allows only the senders and recipients of a message to access the human-readable form of the content.
“That is a precedent that authoritarian regimes are looking to the UK to set, to point to a liberal democracy that was the first to expand surveillance, Meredith Whittaker, president of not-for-profit secure messaging app Signal, told Channel 4 News. “In the terms of the UN human rights commissioner, this is unprecedented paradigm-shifting surveillance. And paradigm shifting not in a good way.”
“We would absolutely exit any country if the choice were between remaining in the country and undermining the strict privacy promises we make to the people who rely on us,” Signal CEO Meredith Whittaker told Ars Technica. “The UK is no exception.”
All of this is as dark as it is ironic. After all, one of the main justifications for the Collective West’s increasingly aggressive posture in other parts of the world — the so-called Jungle, as the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell calls it — is to stem the drift toward authoritarianism being led by China, Russia, Iran and other strategic rivals that are encroaching on the West’s economic turf. Yet back at home (or as Borrell would say, the Garden), the Collective West is, if anything, drifting faster in that direction through its wholehearted embrace of digital censorship, surveillance and control.