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EU eyes deal to tame internet ‘Wild West’

BRUSSELS – The European Union on Friday homed in on new regulation to require Big Tech to remove harmful online content, the bloc's latest move to rein in the world's online giants.

The Digital Services Act (DSA), the second part of a massive project to regulate tech companies, aims to ensure tougher consequences for platforms and websites that violate a long list of banned content ranging from hate speech to disinformation and paedophilia images.

EU officials and parliament members started talks in Brussels to hammer out the deal, hoping to reach an agreement later in the day on legislation in the works since 2020.

The text is the companion to the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which targeted anti-competitive practices among tech behemoths like Google and Facebook and was concluded in late March.

The legislation has faced lobbying from the tech companies and intense debate over the extent of freedom of speech.

"What's forbidden offline must be forbidden online," tweeted EU internal markets commissioner Thierry Breton, who has previously described the internet as the "Wild West".

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Tech giants have been repeatedly called out for failing to police their platforms — a New Zealand terrorist attack that was livestreamed on Facebook in 2019 caused global outrage, and the chaotic insurrection in the US last year was promoted online.

The dark side of the internet also includes e-commerce platforms filled with counterfeit or defective products.

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The proposed regulation would require platforms to swiftly remove illegal content as soon as they are aware of its existence. Social networks would have to suspend users who frequently breach the law.

The DSA would force e-commerce sites to verify the identity of suppliers before proposing their products.

While much of the DSA's stipulations cover all companies, it lays out special obligations for "very large platforms", defined as those with more than 45 million active users in the European Union.

The list of companies has not yet been released but will include giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, as well as Twitter and probably the likes of TikTok, Zalando and Booking.com.

These players will be obliged to assess the risks associated with the use of their services and remove illegal content.

They will also be required to be more transparent about their data and algorithms.

The European Commission will oversee yearly audits and be able to impose fines of up to six percent of their annual sales for repeated infringements.

Among the practices expected to be outlawed is the use of data on religion or political views for targeted advertising.

Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state and presidential candidate, applauded the EU for taking action.

"For too long, tech platforms have amplified disinformation and extremism with no accountability. The EU is poised to do something about it," Clinton tweeted on Thursday.

"I urge our transatlantic allies to push the Digital Services Act across the finish line and bolster global democracy before it's too late."

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen caused a huge stir last year when she accused her former bosses of prioritising profits over the welfare of its users.

She hailed in November the "enormous potential" of the European regulation project, which could become a "reference" for other countries, including the United States.

However, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) fears the text does not go far enough.

It wants a ban on all advertising based on the surveillance of internet users and random checks on online vendors' products.

Artmotion S.Africa

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