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European Policy, Free Expression, Open Internet, Privacy & Data

EU Tech Policy Brief: November 2021 Recap

This is the November 2021 recap issue of the Centre for Democracy & Technology Europe‘s monthly Tech Policy Brief. It highlights some of the most pressing technology and internet policy issues under debate in Europe, the U.S., and internationally, and gives CDT’s perspective on them. Our aim is to help shape policies that advance our rights in a digital world. Please do not hesitate to contact our team in Brussels: Iverna McGowan, Asha Allen, and Ophélie Stockhem.

CDT Europe Director Addresses Policy Dialogue on Targeted Ads and Media Pluralism

On Thursday, 4 November, the European Policy Center organised a Policy Dialogue on the EU’s digital ecosystem, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA), and how the EU should approach regulating targeted ads to boost media pluralism.

At the event, CDT Europe Director Iverna McGowan highlighted the need to review — outside of the DSA process — how current EU privacy and data protection laws are enforced in practice, and whether they are fit to fight the societal harms stemming from the use of personal data. She also spoke of the risks raised by microtargeting in an election context, often driven by opaque algorithms that may lead to disinformation and prevent the full spectrum of media pluralism from being deployed. She emphasised that the very idea of surveillance-based advertising should be challenged, and a ban on pervasive tracking instituted, given the proven harms to democracies and human rights. 

Discussing the DSA’s due diligence obligations for intermediaries, McGowan insisted that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights — which have already been internationally agreed upon —  should be integrated into the proposal to ensure that companies assess the impact of their product and services on fundamental rights.

CDT Europe joins panel on ‘Fixing the Internet Post-Facebook Files’

On Monday, 8 November, MEP Kim van Sparrentak held an online event preceding Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s hearing at the European Parliament. The discussion, organised in collaboration with SDEPS, People vs Big Tech, and Waag, covered alternatives to  business models that feature recommender algorithms and have led to polarisation and extremism. 

Speaking on behalf of CDT Europe, Asha Allen talked about the impact of recommender  systems on vulnerable and at-risk groups, echoing the opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor that recommender systems should not by default be based on profiling as it is defined by Art. 4(4) of the GDPR.

Allen also spoke of the potential of the Digital Services Act to remove the veil around how content amplification, recommender systems, and pervasive advertising work. She highlighted meaningful transparency as an essential first step to understand these systems, so that measures to mitigate their negative impacts truly reach the ground. Allen reiterated that online platforms are vital tools for journalists, advocates, and activists to get their messages out, combat disinformation, advocate for rights, and otherwise reach and build audiences.

CDT Europe’s Advocacy Director Joins 5th International Grand Committee on Disinformation 

On Tuesday, 9 November, The International Grand Committee on Disinformation (IGC) — an international array of legislators, policy advisors, and other experts working on issues at the intersection of online platforms and democratic systems — held their fifth Conference (IGC5)

Asha Allen, CDT Europe’s Advocacy Director for Online Expression & Civic Space, spoke at the second session of the day about online hate directed towards historically marginalised groups.

Allen discussed the increase in online gender-based violence, especially towards women of colour and politically engaged women, and how the Digital Services Act could address this phenomenon. She highlighted the need to analyse the algorithmic amplification of online gender-based violence — including its role in the exclusion of women from our digital ecosystem, and attacks on their freedom of expression — through a holistic and intersectional lens. Allen concluded with a call to lawmakers to adopt a comprehensive, harmonised human rights-based approach to regulating online space, which would ensure that women and all minority groups can enjoy their full range of rights. 

CDT Europe Joins Civil Society in Urging IMCO Committee to Safeguard Independent Scrutiny and Data Access by Vetted Public Interest Researchers

CDT Europe joined civil society organisations, international academics, researchers, and independent think tanks in an open letter to members of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) of the European Parliament in advance of its planned vote on the EU Digital Services Act (DSA).

In the letter, initiated by AlgorithmWatch and Local Witness, we urged the IMCO not to adopt several tabled amendments that would restrict data access and scrutiny solely to researchers affiliated with academic institutions, and allow platforms to deny researchers data access based on protection of “trade secrets.”

We called on IMCO members to ensure that the DSA empowers vetted public interest researchers, whose independent scrutiny is vital to holding tech platforms accountable, and whose analysis can prove useful in assessing trends and improving transparency.

Digital Services Act Snapshot

The Digital Services Act (DSA) is one of the most significant draft regulations aimed to update the EU’s legal framework for digital services, and a key focus area for CDT Europe. Here is a quick snapshot of the proposal’s current status within the European institutions. 

On 25 November, the Council of the European Union agreed upon its “general approach” on the proposal for a Digital Services Act (DSA), paving the way for negotiations in the European Parliament. Slovenia, which led the Council’s negotiations on the DSA, warned of the “extreme delicacy” of the “extraordinary” compromise, foreshadowing upcoming adjustments to the proposal during the tri-institutional dialogue. 

Lawmakers in the Internal Market & Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO), who were originally set to vote on their final report on 8 November, continued their negotiations on proposed amendments throughout November. Negotiations continue, though a press release on 29 November indicated that the Committee is set to vote on the DSA on 9 December. The vote may also take place in extraordinary meetings of the Committee on 13 or 14 December.