On January 20th, the European Parliament took a major step forward in regulating tech platforms when a large majority of MEPs voted to approve its version of the Digital Services Act (DSA).
Despite some shortcomings, the approved text includes crucial wins for civil society. This includes significant changes to the initial proposal that had already been brokered in December by the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO), as well as new changes which were introduced via last-minute amendments in the plenary vote.
Among these last-minute amendments adopted in plenary were a prohibition on targeting of minors for advertising purposes, a ban on using sensitive personal information for tracking (such as sexual orientation, religious, or political beliefs), as well as rules to ensure that users have the option to easily refuse to consent to platforms processing their personal data. The Parliament also strongly endorsed a ban on “dark patterns” which was first endorsed in the IMCO Committee, and it rejected an amendment for a so-called "media exemption", which had been of major concern for advocates working on disinformation space.
Importantly, there were no 11th hour attempts in the Plenary to table changes to what the IMCO Committee had suggested for Article 31 of the DSA. The IMCO proposal includes critical amendments to Article 31, with serious ramifications for our collective ability to understand how platforms impact society. The amended Article 31 approved by Parliament includes provisions to empower a broader base of vetted researchers to access platform data, including researchers from civil society. It also removes the problematic ‘trade secrets’ exemption which, were it to be included in the final law, could be used as a shield by platforms to routinely avoid external scrutiny.
With this vote, the European Parliament has now established its position for trilogue negotiations with the Council of the EU. The schedule for negotiations is moving fast under the new French Presidency of the Council, with the first trilogue already scheduled for January 31st.
Despite progress by the Parliament on platform transparency via Article 31, it is far from guaranteed that this progress will be enshrined in the final law. That’s because the Council’s current position on Article 31 significantly and alarmingly narrows the scope for platform transparency by confirming the ‘trade secrets’ exemption and by raising the bars for researchers to access platform data. Meanwhile, the EU Commission has reiterated its original approach to data access in the DSA in response to a question by MEP Patrick Breyer to say that “vetted researchers” seeking to access platform data must have academic affiliations.
Empowering public interest research is crucial if we wish to understand how platforms impact society. That is why we strongly urge the EU Council and the Commission to follow the Parliament’s approach in the upcoming trilogue negotiations.