Greetings from Brussels,
Here we are folks, last week of August and the summer is coming to a close. Brussels is starting to get back on track after the break, and the streets of the EU quarter are all a-bustle once again. The rain is back with frequency, a sure sign here that the season is changing. More importantly, my favorite coffee shop (Italian, of course) is back from its well-deserved holiday. Where would we be without Italian coffee?
As you all know, the big tech companies — and Silicon Valley, in general — have come under much EU scrutiny of late, and not just in the field of privacy. Most notably, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had been a driving force behind an ambitious yet controversial plan to impose revenue taxes on the tech giants that would invariably hinder tech companies’ ability to shop and move earnings to low-tax-rate regimes in select EU member states. However, Germany is not overly keen on the proposal, and neither are Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and some others; the proposal remains on the commission agenda and is set for a showdown before the year is out. The tech firms are not out of the woods just yet, it seems, and Macron’s desire to reign in the U.S. multinationals has been given some oxygen with European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager slapping a 4.3 billion euro fine on Google over its Android software in July.
More recently, an article in Politico EU caught my attention, talking about additional potential compliance controls being placed on the tech companies. Earlier in the year, the European Commission was grappling with whether to regulate social media and online platforms to ensure they promptly remove illegal content of a broad nature — be it terrorist propaganda, child sexual exploitation, or hate speech, but also commercial scams and even copyright breaches. In March of this year, having favored self-regulation through guidelines and recommendations, Andrus Ansip, VP for the Digital Single Market, said in a statement, “While several platforms have been removing more illegal content than ever before — showing that self-regulation can work — we still need to react faster against terrorist propaganda and other illegal content which is a serious threat to our citizens’ security, safety and fundamental rights.” While terrorist content was the priority target here, the European Commission has continued to push for platforms to remove all illegal content, however it is manifested.
Fast forward and, as reported by Politico EU, the European Commission is expected to unveil a new regulation in the coming month that would oblige internet giants such as Facebook and Twitter to remove terrorist content "within the hour" — quite how that will work out in practice is a lot more complex than it appears. To be fair, the tech giants have been active, deploying armies of content moderators all in the name of digital trust. Some of the statistics released by the tech firms show that a great deal of illegal content has been removed from their platforms. Clearly though, given the magnitude and sheer size of the digital highway and its content, the message here from the EU authorities is that not enough progress has been made to stamp out extremist content in an efficient and timely manner.
Part of the proposed regulation will be for EU member states to establish national authorities to define the nature of what constitutes terrorist content and subsequently police tech companies to remove flagged content. This is a first, in that technology firms and online services could be held directly responsible for how long terrorism-related content circulates on their platforms. Failing to meet proposed standards may result in stringent fines; penalty mechanisms could be along similar lines as the GDPR. It could well be argued that content moderation is, without a doubt, fast becoming a new battleground between the digital industry and the authorities.
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