EU’s Digital Services Act. What implications for European citizens?

by Roberta Guevska

In times of rapid artificial intelligence (AI) development and its widespread use to control consumers’ attention and navigate their needs and wants, the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) has set a milestone in regulating big tech. The regulation purports to tackle emerging online challenges such as the spread of illegal goods, hate speech, cyber threats, disinformation, burdens on the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), smaller platforms and start-ups, and the foreclosure of digital markets. To level the digital playing field for all Europeans, the European Commission (EC) introduced two significant legislative proposals back in December 2020 – the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). The former strives to establish a set of stringent regulations for various large online platforms (so-called “gatekeepers”) giving the Commission new enforcement powers, along with the capacity to impose severe fines and remedies in cases of non-compliance. On the other hand, the DSA aims to replace the current EU framework for digital services – namely the E-Commerce Directive that dates back more than two decades. According to the EC, its introduction has been driven by the need to take a decisive step in the direction of a revolutionary set of regulations, particularly due to the emergence of various innovative digital services, namely ones that have changed the daily lives of the EU citizens, and have shaped and transformed how they communicate, connect, consume and do business. Therefore, the DSA’s main goal is to create a safer space for all the users online, a place where their fundamental rights as digital consumers are guaranteed and safeguarded, and what’s more an area where big tech businesses acknowledge their key role in this process and obey certain strict rules.

What will big tech companies be obliged to do after the legislation comes into force?

The DSA is a landmark piece of legislation, especially in the way the EU would be able to exercise control over big tech companies and hold them accountable for their online content, and for compliance with the basic human rights belonging to every internet user. To that end, according to the Commission’s reports, “big tech” are considered the so-called “gatekeepers” (tech companies with a market capitalization of at least 75 billion euros or annual revenues within the EU of at least 7.5 billion euros in the past three years). It is expected that the DSA will come into force no longer than 15 months after its adoption (January 1, 2024) by the European Parliament. Nevertheless, for these certain large players on the market, the period would be even shorter – 4 months after designation. Additionally, the rules proposed in the document are designed asymmetrically, which means that larger intermediary services with significant societal impact would be subject to stricter regulations. Having said that, the most far-reaching rules in the DSA focus on several prominent online platforms that have the greatest influence on the European economy and citizens, reaching at least 45 million users in the EU (representing 10% of the population). These large online search engines with more than 10% of the 450 million consumers in the EU will be most responsible for preventing the spread of illegal content on the Internet.

Will the DSA influence freedom of speech and expression online?

The answer to this rather complex question lies in the core idea behind this innovative regulation, namely to give practical effect to the principle that “what is illegal offline, should be illegal online”. To this extent, the DSA is not only a brave and necessary step forward in the creation of a safer online environment for all Europeans but also engages with the protection of freedom of expression by taking concrete measures to prevent governments themselves from interfering in these core human rights. The horizontal rules against illegal content are carefully prepared and backed up by strict and secure guarantees for freedom of expression and an effective right of redress – to avoid both under-removal and over-removal of content on grounds of illegality.

How exactly would this affect the day-to-day life of EU citizens?

Last but not least, in the last couple of years, the EC has been actively and consistently working towards bringing this kind of upgraded legislation in the area of digital services into life, as it is supposed to improve the online environment overall and have great benefits for the future of every European citizen. By ensuring consumers have safe and secure access to products on the Internet and by protecting their fundamental rights at the same time, the DSA encourages fair competition in the digital sectors and strives to boost innovations and strengthen the European economy in general.

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