Use the Digital Services Act to make democracy prevail over platform interests, RSF tells EU

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the European Union to not let slip the historic opportunity provided by the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA) to make democracy prevail over the interests of the dominant digital platforms. As the online information chaos created by the platforms poses a major danger to democracy, the EU must ensure that the DSA includes all necessary democratic safeguards, especially safeguards that strengthen the independence and reliability of news and information, RSF says.

An important first step was taken on 26 May when the European Commission published new guidance on strengthening the code of practice on disinformation. In particular, RSF welcomes the fact that the Commission urged platforms to facilitate access to “indicators of trustworthiness” allowing users to make informed choices and mentioned the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI).

Piloted by RSF in partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) and the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the Journalism Trust Initiative is designed to help people to see and recognise reliable information provided by media outlets that respect journalistic standards and ethics. It has produced a machine-readable set of standards that can be incorporated into search engine and social media algorithms, and can also be used by advertisers, regulatory bodies and philanthropic entities.

But this first step by the Commission is not enough to end the information chaos currently reigning online, where algorithms encourage sensationalism, rumour, lies and hate speech, and where opinions and beliefs prevail over facts. To transform the status quo, which is unfairly biased against journalism, platforms must be required to promote reliable news and information sources, and not just suggest them.

The proposed Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act offer a unique opportunity to regulate platforms. As the co-legislators – the European Parliament and the Council of the EU – begin examining these two draft laws, which the European Commission unveiled last December, RSF urges them to incorporate democratic counterbalances to the growing power of the platforms in the online information and communication domain.

In their current form, the DSA and DMA are not up to these challenges, and RSF has drafted a series of recommendations that would enable them to do this. Ending the information chaos that is currently undermining democracy is the biggest challenge. To this end, RSF proposes special safeguards for content that respects media ethics and professional standards with regard to the production of reliable news and information*.

The proposed DSA provides for the drafting of “crisis protocols” that in “extraordinary circumstances” defined by these protocols could require platforms to display “prominent information on the crisis situation provided by Member States’ authorities or at Union level.” These protocols therefore envisage a mechanism for ensuring the visibility of official information online. But this is not enough. RSF calls for a mechanism that promotes reliable information.

To combat the systemic dangers posed by disinformation and to satisfy the need defined in the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) to “support adequate visibility of reliable information of public interest and maintain a plurality of views,” the DSA should make platforms adhere to a “due prominence” obligation with regard to reliable news and information by using such mechanisms as the JTI.

To this end, the DSA should adopted a co-regulation approach, in the form of a legal obligation referring to a self-regulatory standard. Using “must-carry” and quota rules as a model, the DSA should make platforms adopt mechanisms designed to give prominence to information sources that respect standardised self-regulatory norms on professional and ethical practices, and give them preferential treatment in terms of prioritisation of content, especially promotion and visibility in news feeds and search results.

Finally, other elements should also be reinforced or added to the DSA in order to establish an effective system of democratic safeguards online. The DSA should:

  • Expand the definition of systemic risk to include the system itself, the way the algorithms function;
  • Require platforms to be transparent and their algorithms to be auditable;
  • Ensure that platforms observe political, ideological and religious neutrality;
  • Ensure that content moderation respects international standards on freedom of expression;
  • Require platforms to appoint a legal representative in every EU member state;
  • Give civil society an appropriate role, so that “trusted flaggers” do not promote new forms of censorship and reduce pluralism;
  • Ensure “gatekeeper” competition, which will foster a more pluralist, open and decentralised digital environment;
  • Require “mixed” services (private messaging services used for public domain purposes) to respect basic principles;
  • Establish a form of governance that safeguards the independence of national regulators and future regulatory relevance.

The Forum on Information and Democracy, which was created at RSF’s initiative, has published a report entitled “How to end infodemics” containing 250 specific recommendations.

By “reliable news and information,” RSF means information that is freely gathered, processed and disseminated according to the principles of a commitment to truth, plurality of viewpoints and the use of rational methods to establish and verify facts.


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Updated on 02.06.2021