Instagram, Facebook, Google, Youtube, Tiktok and Twitter, among others, have been designated as so-called Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) by the European Commission. This is an important step in applying the Digital Services Act (DSA), a new EU law that is designed to protect the public sphere from risks that stem from the design, deployment and use of platforms’ services. This includes the algorithmic systems that power virtually everything we see and do on social media.
The law will become applicable in all its aspects across the EU in February of 2024—but the new rules kick in earlier for the largest platforms, which will have four months to comply with the DSA, and who will have stricter rules to follow than smaller platforms.
It is therefore very good news that Twitter has been designated a Very Large Online Platform, and the European Commission should make applying the new rules to Twitter a priority.
Because over the past six months, Twitter has acted with apparent disregard for people's rights and legal rules. Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, has repeatedly shown a willingness to take abrupt decisions without regard for the clear risks they pose to society, such as a paid verification scheme that predictably flooded the site with disinformation, or the arbitrary censorship of journalists critical of him personally.
Mass layoffs at Twitter following Musk’s takeover have further undermined the company’s capacity to protect its users and comply with the law. This includes the firing of the company’s internal “Ethical AI” team, much of its trust and safety team and thousands of subcontracted content moderators—moves which have undoubtedly contributed to a marked increase in hate speech and toxic narratives on the site.
Also concerning is that the company has seemingly vacated its formal commitments to tackle disinformation and other risks that its algorithmic systems pose to society, commitments that will become legally binding under the DSA. Rather than improving researcher access to data, for example, the company wants to impose fees that would threaten public interest research (we have signed an open letter calling on Twitter to reverse course and on policymakers to require that this vital research infrastructure remain easily accessible).
Twitter’s user base may pale in comparison to other social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook. The company nevertheless boasts hundreds of millions of users and is seen as specifically influential because many of its users are politicians, journalists, and activists. The company has said it intends to comply with EU laws, which will among other things subject tech platforms to extensive transparency and due diligence measures to ensure their algorithmic systems operate with respect for users' fundamental rights. But time and again, Twitter’s actions show that it is unwilling to protect its users and comply with the law.
The EU can now make clear that it entered a new era of platform governance by using its full enforcement powers under the new Digital Services Act. It needs to investigate Twitter and other major online platforms and hold these companies accountable for their actions (and inactions) with regard to the risks they pose to fundamental rights and civic discourse. Tech platforms must not be able to arbitrarily wield power at a whim of their CEOs. They must fulfill their legal responsibilities to the public–or else face sanctions.