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[Chronique de Pierre Trudel] Civilizing the Internet the European way

There’s no good reason why laws that protect people’s dignity, reputation, or privacy off the Internet shouldn’t apply when it comes to activities that take place on the Internet. In this spirit, the European authorities have agreed to introduce legislation on online services. It is a question of upgrading the rules established at the turn of the century and which left a lot of leeway to what megaplatforms like Twitter, TikTok, Google or Facebook have since become. These measures deserve to be examined closely at a time when billionaire Elon Musk decides to buy ownership of the social network Twitter in order to make it, according to him, a “paradise” of unlimited freedom of expression.

The European project is a reminder that, contrary to the fantasies of those who imagine that on the Internet there are no laws, there is no absolute freedom. It lays down rules that will encourage platforms to do everything possible to limit abusive practices. The legislation will apply to all digital services that connect consumers with providers of goods, services or content. It will put in place procedures to remove illegal content more quickly and to protect the fundamental rights of online users.

The obligations imposed on companies will be proportionate according to the role they play, their size and their weight in the online ecosystem. The measures are aimed in particular at online services such as the very large search engines used by more than 10% of the 450 million consumers in the European Union, to whom the legislation recognizes a greater responsibility in the fight against illegal content online. In short, the more influence a company has, the more it must identify and manage the risks associated with the activities it allows on its platforms.

Similarly, online platforms bringing together sellers and consumers, such as online marketplaces, app stores, collaborative economy platforms and social media platforms, will be subject to regulation. This will also be the case for very large online platforms which could present particular risks with regard to the dissemination of illegal content and societal damage.

Measures against illegal content

The proposed legislation includes measures to tackle illegal goods, services or content online. For example, this could include mechanisms that allow users to easily report such content and platforms to cooperate with “trusted flaggers”. There are also obligations in terms of traceability of companies active on online marketplaces. The days when scammers could operate online and camouflage themselves with impunity may well be coming to an end.

The European project also includes measures to empower users and civil society, such as the ability to challenge content moderation decisions made by platforms and seek redress, either through a mediation mechanism, or by appeal to a judge. The platforms are spaces belonging to private companies, but there are activities that concern the public. When censorship measures are imposed there, it must be in accordance with the law and validated by independent judges.

With regard to big data, which is the main fuel for generating value in connected environments, the European project includes provisions to grant authorized researchers access to key data from the largest platforms and to allow NGOs to access public data, in order to better understand the evolution of online risks.

Also foreseen are transparency measures for online platforms regarding several aspects of their technical operation, including the algorithms used to recommend content or products to users. This may include mechanisms to assess and mitigate risks, such as requiring very large platforms and large online search engines to prevent misuse of their systems by adopting precautions commensurate with the risks and by requiring independent audits of their risk management system.

If adopted, this European Union project has a good chance of gaining traction well beyond European territory. Already, European regulations on the protection of personal data tend to impose themselves as the standard to be respected by all online companies that want to be serious in their commitments to protect the privacy of their users. It is expected that this regulation on harmful content will provide the main bases of a regulatory framework in order to restore an environment on the Internet in which it is possible to freely disseminate all ideas, but within the limits indicated in the laws. Laws which, let us remember, must be deemed reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society.

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