Holding platforms accountable: The DSA must empower vetted public interest research to reign in platform risks to the public sphere

The negotiations on the Digital Services Act (DSA) are now at a critical juncture. We have written an open letter to all IMCO Committee Members of the European Parliament asking them to empower a broad base of vetted public interest researchers whose independent scrutiny is vital to holding large tech platforms accountable. It has been signed by 22 international academics and independent researchers and 29 civil society organisations.
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We currently face a major knowledge deficit in our public sphere. Private technology companies wield huge influence and power over our societies, public discourse, and the realisation of our rights, yet we understand far too little about how these companies work. While the Digital Services Act (DSA) is a crucial opportunity to hold online platforms to account, we are deeply concerned that the DSA will fall short of the measures needed to open up big online platforms to meaningful scrutiny. Specifically, proposals i) to restrict data access and scrutiny to researchers affiliated with academic institutions in Art. 31(4) of the draft DSA; and ii) to allow for broad exemptions which would allow platforms to deny data access based on protection of “trade secrets” in Art. 31(6)b, would severely undermine our ability to assess the risks that platforms may pose to our public sphere.

Together with Global Witness, we have written an open letter addressed to all IMCO Committee Members detailing our demands regarding Article 31. In the name of 22 international academics and independent researchers and 29 civil society organizations, we urge them to widen data access in the DSA to vetted public interest civil society organisations and remove the trade secrets exemption on the basis of which Very Large Online Platforms could deny requests for data access. Both these demands would considerably increase the EU’s ability to hold Very Large Online Platforms to account, and they must not be traded against each other.

The open letter was sent to EU lawmakers on 26 November 2021. This follows the open letter we sent to European Union lawmakers in September, after Facebook forced us to shut down our Instagram Monitoring Project.