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Mozilla to EU: Make companies accountable for practices that amplify illegal content

Mozilla Corporation’s CEO Mitchell Baker has advised the European Union to make online platforms accountable for practices and processes that can amplify illegal and harmful content, and ensure that they do not amplify such content through their business practices. She wrote an open letter to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission (EU), as part of the public consultation on the Digital Services Act (DSA) package.

The DSA package is an attempt by the EU to modernise the legal framework surrounding digital services in its jurisdiction. It proposes rules that will decide the responsibilities and legal obligations of digital services. The consultation will end on September 8.

Baker remarked that internet today was not “what it should be”. She told the EC that it had a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to put in place solutions that could address the problems at hand. “With the DSA, the European Commission has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the systemic challenges holding back the internet from what it should be.”

Make companies accountable for practices that amplify harmful content: Baker said that the internet was no longer an empowering outlet for free expression. She blamed this on business practices which amplified illegal and harmful content. “Any regulation needs to encourage comprehensive content responsibility, meaning companies are accountable for ensuring their practices don’t give undue amplification to harmful and illegal content,” she said. Baker indicated that while the companies should not themselves be held liable for illegal or harmful content, they should be for any practices or processes (such as algorithms) that amplify such content. She admitted that there was the risk of new regulations stifling creative innovation but this could be solved with careful engagement with experts to understand responsibility and accountability in a “thoughtful way’.

Aggressive collection of personal data heart of the problem: Baker said that while advertising had helped companies develop, grow and eventually lead to innovation, the ecosystem underpinning the advertising business model was “unwell”. She wrote against the aggressive collection of personal data and micro-targeting individuals, calling it “the heart of many systemic problems facing the internet”. She suggested that the EC clamp down on cross-site tracking using the DSA and added the DSA could take steps to ensure that advertising was not a “vector for individual and collective harm”, hoping for a more transparent ad tech ecosystem.

Consider broad advertising disclosure protocols: Baker said that the EC could look into improving transparency in advertising so as to tackle “disinformation”. She said that there was a need to understand if disinformation was being spread due to the architecture and commercial incentives of platforms. “The DSA can set the standard in this regard as an initial matter by ensuring platforms are transparent about what advertising is on their platform and how that advertising is being served to individual.” She suggested that it could consider broad advertising disclosure protocols, which apply beyond just political ads. This, she said, would give the public a greater insight into potential harm happening on closed platforms.

More competition in digital markets: Baker indicated that small, medium and independent companies, including Mozilla, were up against larger intermediary platforms which hold “tremendous power”. She indicated that innovation and R&D at the platform level (“upstream” moves) often have economic impact on smaller “downstream” players who need access to these platforms to survive. Hence, innovation becomes the domain of bigger platforms and smaller companies are locked out of both innovation and the market. She said this ultimately impacted consumer choice as well. She hoped that the EC would work towards empowering competition across the board so as to benefit the general public.

Recently, Google wrote to the EC to submit its views on the DSA. The company opposed imposing liability on intermediaries for content posted by users. Instead, it said the existing e-Commerce Directive’s limited liability regime should continue since it takes into consideration degree of knowledge and the control (or lack thereof) that intermediaries have regarding content on their services. “It should be based on notice and takedown of illegal content, prohibit general monitoring requirements, incentivize additional action, and retain the country of origin principle,” Google said in its submission.

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