On November 16th, 2022, the European Union adopted the Digital Services Act (DSA), the most ambitious attempt to regulate digital services. The DSA aims to address problematic aspects of online services, such as the lack of accountability, low transparency, and how companies shape online discourse. A safe online participation space is essential to democracies, and the DSA also addresses specific problems such as hate speech and disinformation.
The obligations of the DSA will be phased in over the next ten months, becoming fully applicable to all addressees by February 17th, 2024. Hopefully, online discourses will be much better regulated and more transparent, and companies will be accountable for organising this essential marketplace of political opinion and debate. However, the DSA is only a first step.
This legislative sketch needs to be filled in by secondary legislation, concrete actions by regulators and firms, and possibly courts will interpret the meaning of many of its articles. The challenge of the coming years will be to ensure that the DSA results in a meaningful regulation system. This is where civil society organisations (CSOs) have an essential role to play.
Civil Society Organisations have been at the forefront of analysing problematic trends and practices in online discourse. They are not accused of "surveillance" when they monitor and analyse online public discourse. In contrast to academic research output, their findings are published promptly to inform policy formulation. However, different challenges make the work of CSOs harder, such as the data access companies need to provide.
A Guide for Civil Society Organisations
To ensure that DSA translates into a meaningful regulatory system, we have produced a guide for CSOs to engage with DSA in five key ways:
- Monitoring online space and the application of the DSA's provisions. This may include the detection of new threats and the reporting of non-compliance by digital service providers.
- Cooperation and/or dialogue with involved actors such as platforms, the European Commission, national regulators, etc. CSOs can provide valuable insights into the needs and concerns of users and can engage in discussions on how to improve the DSA's effectiveness.
- Taking up specific roles that the EU's emerging online regulation system offers, such as becoming "trusted flaggers" as per the DSA, becoming signatories of various codes, and cooperating through formats that they may establish.
- Advocating for legal interpretations of DSA norms that result in meaningful accountability and transparency, and effective enforcement. CSOs can analyse how the DSA is implemented and interpreted concretely and advocate for the further development of DSA norms, secondary legislation, and codes or practices to take account of new threats.
- Supporting and representing users, for example, the victims of online harm, making use of DSA provisions and other legal avenues for complaints or court interventions. CSOs can provide support to users in navigating the complex landscape of online regulation and can help ensure that the DSA is used to protect and promote the rights of users.
By monitoring online space, engaging in dialogue with stakeholders, taking up specific roles, advocating for legal interpretations, and supporting and representing users, CSOs can help shape the emerging landscape of online regulation and ensure that the DSA fulfils its promise.