How the EU’s approach to social network regulation is creating new winners
Given their influence in shaping public opinion and reach into every corner of the world, European regulators are placing increased emphasis on encouraging social media platforms to prioritize the safety of their users.
With the new European Commission finally receiving the green light from the European Parliament, new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is putting the environment and the digital transformation at the top of her agenda. Brussels has the ambition to set standards and pioneer a new economy where digital interactions and data form the core of modern society.
In this regard, data protection is a particular concern, with social media at the centre. Given their influence in shaping public opinion and reach into every corner of the world, it’s no surprise that regulators are placing increased emphasis on encouraging platforms to prioritize the safety of their users. For its part, the new Commission will likely ramp up regulations in an attempt to crack down on illicit or dangerous content and behaviour.
Recent EU statistics show that 56% of citizens in its member states between the ages of 16 and 74 used social networks last year. Given that the percentage rises to 88% when the parameters are narrowed to 16- and 24-year-olds, it’s clear that the phenomenon looks likely to only increase in popularity in the coming years. For that reason, the EU has indicated it wishes to tighten up legislation surrounding social media networks, with its “Digital Services Act” (DSA) currently undergoing review and likely to be published at the end of next year.
The predictably defiant response from the dominant players in the industry like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, was quick to come. With social networks forced to shift their policies to accommodate new rules, the legislation could now open doors for players that have placed responsible usership and “social learning” at the heart of their design. This way, the EU could be forcing through a change in the very fabric of the social media infrastructure – and it’s a change for the better.
While details of the DSA remain vague, it seems likely that social networks will soon be subject to mandatory takedown requests for any kind of content deemed inappropriate – not just terrorism-related posts, as is currently the case. One official close to the matter has revealed that the “Safe Harbour” protocol – which exempts platforms from prosecution over material uploaded by their users – would remain untouched. However, the concurrent Online Harms paper being drafted by the UK government may well be more aggressive in its wording, forcing companies to take a more proactive approach.
Old hands resist, innovators profit
These kinds of incursions into the hitherto relatively unrestricted operations of the social media behemoths have predictably met with hefty opposition. A cache of correspondence between Facebook and the European Commission has revealed how the American company sought to resist attempts to relinquish control over content posted online, citing concerns over innovation and freedom of speech. Facebook also argued against implementing consent gathering on their site, claiming it would worsen the user experience, despite 92% of Europeans believing confidentiality of their online messaging is important.
But not everyone has viewed the emphasis on security as a threat to their existence. Indeed, some innovating companies have been anticipating the changing winds by already integrating self-regulation as a core element of their business model. Yubo, for example, a French friend-finding app aimed at teens, is placing the user community at the centre of enforcing its own community guidelines. Though based on livestreaming, the app this way takes interaction between users beyond mere content production and exchange, but encourages taking social responsibility.
This approach of self-regulation and responsibility is in line with Yubo’s intention to avoid direct punishment of the youthful transgressors. Instead, the app is designed to give them time to understand how and why they have broken the rules. A specially-developed algorithm detects rule-breaking behaviour and cuts into the livestream or messaging, thereby setting limits and making its 20 million users understand that they are accountable for their behaviour.
In Germany, LemonSwan equally employs strict controls against fake accounts and unscrupulous actors to raise the calibre of its users. Potential users are vetted before being admitted and have to provide documentation proving their identity, ensuring that interactions happen between real people. Over in Denmark, friend-finding app Panion has also been earning acclaim for its work in helping expats and other lonely individuals find those with like-minded interests. This fact is a leading cause behind the app’s growing user base, currently standing at 100,000 users.
Given that Germany has already implemented its own NetzDG law and is planning to introduce the first rules aimed at promoting diversity of online content in the near future, it’s unsurprising that Europe is home to innovators in the social network sphere. But the influence can also be seen across the pond. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched his own, ad-free platform to rival that of the old guards, claiming they have become corrupted by a desire for profit and that content has slumped as a result. Wales has pledged to never sell user data or run ads on the new WT:Social site.
The blueprint laid down by the EU has been instrumental in creating an online environment in which European apps like those mentioned above can prosper and that effect is beginning to manifest itself across Europe and now even the US. It seems the EU is setting the pace when it comes to accountability and transparency with regard to social networks at home and abroad.