Beyond the technical: Why the DSA matters for Democracy

Published: 21 October 2021

Our daily lives are more and more taking place online where we connect with others, get information on important issues and engage in discussions, which makes the digital public sphere is an indispensable part of our daily lives, our societies, and our democracies. Therefore, fostering a healthy digital public sphere that is regulated in a way respectful to fundamental human rights and democracy is an essential part of the vision of Civitates and its partners. 

Policy-makers across the world have acknowledged the importance and urgency of establishing certain norms and rules for the functioning of the digital public sphere. Several legislative proposals at the EU level are trying to address the tech-induced challenges such as platforms’ accountability and transparency, polarisation, and disinformation. As those proposals are taking shape, it is vital that we keep in mind their purpose and make sure it doesn’t get diluted in technical terms.

The European Partnership for Democracy, a Civitates grantee partner and an organisation with a global remit to support democracy recently published an article explaining the importance of the Digital Services Act for Democracy in Europe and potentially beyond.

The following sums up EPD’s views on the DSA and is an adaptation of their original post.

What is the DSA about?

The Digital Services Act – DSA for short – is a piece of EU legislation that aims to regulate online platforms such as Facebook, Google, Tik Tok and Amazon. Following the publishing of the draft legislation by the European Commission in December 2020, the European Parliament and European Council are currently adopting their respective positions on the legislation. 

The upcoming Digital Services Act is such draft legislation that “has the potential to reimagine the online public sphere, make the platforms more accountable, and create the oversight framework so that things like disinformation, polarisation and echo-chambers will be better understood and better dealt with by civil society, media, and governments”, explains Ruth-Marie Henckes, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD).

Why it matters for Democracy

The DSA matters for democracy because it sets the rules over the online platforms we use privately and in public: to connect with friends and family, inform ourselves on issues affecting our lives, consume media and engage in discussions. Four issues, in particular, are important for regulating our online information space: 

  1. Advertising transparencyis essential for countering interference in elections, limiting the spread and monetisation of disinformation, and countering discriminatory practices through advertising. In September 2020, EPD brought together a large coalition setting out exactly what such ad transparency should look like.
  2. Recommender systemsdecide on the information we consume and have a major role in amplifying disinformation and sensationalist news at the cost of quality news media and media diversity. We need more agency over our information diet, with  personal choice, improved transparency and accountability. 
  3. Risk assessmentsare essential for identifying and countering violations of fundamental rights and threats to democracy as a result of the operation of online platforms. Such risk assessments need to be conducted in an independent and transparent manner and should be able to trigger changes in the operating mechanisms of platforms. 
  4. Effective oversight requires data access for public interest research into online platforms, as well as strong oversight institutions that can effectively enforce EU regulation.

As a network of democracy support organisations, the EPD has focused on political advertising on online platforms, with extensive advocacy and research under the Virtual Insanity project. Later this year, the European Commission will publish a legislative proposal regarding online political advertising. While the DSA has the opportunity to tackle systemic challenges in online platforms – such as ad transparency – the regulation of online political advertisements can help ensure political party’s integrity with a more targeted approach focused on political ads. Ahead of the publication of the draft regulation, EPD has provided extensive input through a paper on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP), a roundtable organised with the Open Government Partnership, a civil society consultation organised with DG JUST, participation in Vice President Jourova’s expert group on the EDAP, and joint input with our members to the EU’s online consultation.

An impact beyond Europe

While the regulation would only deal with platforms inside Europe, its impact will be global. As shown with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU can be a global standard setter in the regulation of technology. Moreover, the challenges to democracy from online platforms are not confined to the EU’s external borders. Cambridge analytica was first tested in Kenya, and in Myanmar the proliferation of hate speech on online platforms further spurred the genocide against the Rohingya. The DSA will be essential for setting the global standard for platform regulation and it is high time that democracies enforced principles of transparency and oversight to come to grips with the impact of online platforms on democracy.

The role of civil society

As the windows for influencing the Parliament and Council positions on the DSA are closing soon – with both institutions adopting positions in November – civil society organisations are working hard to advance the necessary measures to strengthen fundamental freedoms and democracy in the legislation. This will be the essential foundation for the trialogues, where the Commission, Council and Parliament will discuss behind closed doors and propose compromise legislation. “Yet, civil society is fighting an uphill battle,” explains Ruth-Marie from EPD. Recent research by Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl has shown how the digital industry now spends nearly €100 million on lobbying, a sum which dwarfs all other lobby spendings by the private sector, let alone by civil society. “As lobby groups push forward measures such as media exemptions to content moderation which would significantly undermine recent gains on fighting disinformation, civil society shows its resilience by continuing to push for innovative solutions and essential safeguards to protect democratic debate. It feels like a ‘now or never’ moment for structural reform, and so civil society organisations are giving it their all to make this the moment we reinvigorate our online public sphere.”

The European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) facilitates collective action aimed to strengthen EU action and reinforce democracy within EU countries through regulating the digital public sphere in ways that are conducive to democratic principles and practices.