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How to build a European regulator to govern social media platforms?

Hosted by the Centre for Digital Governance, panelists discussed how the governance framework for the oversight of social media platforms should be created under the proposed EU Digital Services Act.

The panel included Thurid Hustedt, Professor of Public Administration and Management at the Hertie School, Matthias Spielkamp, the co-founder and Executive Director of AlgorithmWatch, and Marie-Teresa Weber, Public Policy Manager for Facebook in Berlin. The panel was moderated by Daniela Stockmann, Professor of Digital Governance at the Hertie School.

In the Digital Services Act (DSA) proposal, the European Commission envisions a network of “Digital Service Coordinators” nominated by each member state, which are then represented on a European Board for Digital Service, tasked with assisting the Commission in supervising online platforms. Digital Services Coordinators serve as primary agencies to hold social media platforms accountable. The Commission is envisioned to primarily serve as a last resort enforcer if Digital Service Coordinators recommend it to investigate issues, or regarding enforcement of the additional obligations of platforms over 45 million users, including Facebook. The envisioned structure connects the players as depicted in this graphic: 

One major challenge posed within the DSA proposal is that of defining which national bodies will become each Digital Services Coordinator. Member states must nominate one, explained Thurid Hustedt, but will they nominate existing authorities, create one authority each, or delegate tasks to several agencies? Though there is a long history of regulatory agency networks across the EU, research has shown that they were “set up with a lot of hope, but they often didn`t meet expectations,” because decentral implementation and centralised harmonisation is a substantive coordination and regulatory challenge.  

Facebook’s reaction to the proposal is one of welcome. Marie-Teresa Weber commented that as a large multinational company, they have great interest in one harmonised regulatory approach addressing liability, obligations, and the question of content moderation. The DSA’ s coordinated structure is preferable to having diverse regulatory regimes in each of the 27 member states.  
However, Matthias Spielkamp countered this positive message by expressing that he becomes suspicious when he hears a company like Facebook lauding a proposal such as the DSA, because their reaction can be caused by many things. One reason is that the governance mechanism may not hurt the company. He explained that he suspected that Facebook welcoming a legislation means (and he was looking at the example of Australia) that they welcome legislation as long as it suits them, and if that is not the case anymore, then they cut off an entire country. 
The Commission proposal remains vague on precisely how the oversight mechanisms of audits, risk assessment, access to data, and fines will be enacted. Through a poll, audience members shared their belief that audits and access to data would be the most powerful mechanism to enforce oversight over large online platforms. Matthias Spielkamp underscored that the mechanism is complex and oversight requires coordination as, for example, access to data would have small effect without fines when wrongdoing is found. 

The Digital Services Act proposal now begins the ordinary legislative procedure and will be adjusted and amended in the European Parliament. “The lawmaking process will take, according to experts, at least 18 months, so we have some time to continue this discussion,” concluded Daniela Stockmann. 

Related Links:

Proposal for Digital Services Act, European Commission, December 15, 2020

Stanford Cyber Policy Center on Digital Services Act

European Digital Media Observatory

EU Democracy Action Plan

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