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EU Parliament backs plans for regulation of digital platforms

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The EU’s legislative body has strongly backed a series of reports which lay out plans for future regulation of digital platforms, including the possibility of a phase-out of targeted advertising.

Since 2000, the EU has used the e-Commerce Directive as its primary legal framework for regulating digital services. Now, it is is developing a modern legal framework – the Digital Services Act – which will frame the responsibilities of digital companies to address risks their users face and set rules that prevent anti-competitive behaviour.

The European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved three resolutions. These seek to establish its position on the future of digital services regulation before the measures are published in December by the European Commission. These recommendations are likely to feed into the Digital Services Act.

The Parliament notably backed the inclusion of tighter restrictions on targeted advertising, put forward by German MEP Tiemo Wölken of the Legal Affairs committee. The proposal suggests that targeted advertising should fall under stricter regulations than non-targeted advertising, with possibilities including a phase-out of targeted advertising with a view to a complete ban.

Wölken also proposed that platforms should provide the option for anonymous use of digital services.

Speaking to Euractiv, he commented: “We want to see a Digital Services Act which protects fundamental rights of users and avoids upload filters which would block content without human oversight. We also called for a strong European entity to ensure the transparency of social media platforms. And finally, we called on the Commission to consider a phase-out of targeted advertisements and even a total ban within the EU. That’s a very important decision and I am expecting that the Commission looks at this point really carefully.”

Facebook’s chief lobbyist Nick Clegg argued to lawmakers last month that targeted advertising allows small businesses to compete with better resourced rivals. However, the mass data collection and processing associated with targeted advertising is likely to be addressed in the Digital Services Act, with issues such as Facebook’s “forced consent” to data collection remaining contentious under GDPR.

MEPs supported proposals to force platforms to take more proactive action in detecting and removing false claims and listings of dangerous or counterfeit goods; the Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has indicated that a crackdown on illegal and counterfeit goods is likely to be included in the Digital Services Act.

MEPs also supported calls from Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba to distinguish clearly between illegal content (as judged by an independent judiciary) and harmful content. Harmful content should be handled via enhanced transparency obligations and media literacy initiatives, they agreed. MEPs rejected the use of automated upload filters or any other form of ex ante content control for harmful or illegal content.

Saliba also proposed the introduction of a notice-and-action mechanism that would allows users to flag up illegal content to service providers; this was backed by MEPs. Users should be able to seek redress through national dispute settlement bodies.

The Parliament also backed recommendations from the Civil Liberties Committee to preserve freedom of information and freedom of expression by ensuring that any content removal regulations are “diligent, proportionate, and non-discriminatory”. They also backed the possibility of introducing new rules for transparency regarding microtargeting, “based on characteristics exposing physical or psychological vulnerabilities”.

Separately, the Parliament supported the introduction of a legal framework to prevent market failures caused by anti-competitive behaviour by “gatekeeper” digital platforms.

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