It’s a global issue. It’s an existential threat to our way of life. And it threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems.
Luca Nicotra is a Campaign Director at Avaaz.
It’s a safe bet that you’re thinking about climate change.
But I’m referring instead to the problem caused by hate speech, disinformation and harmful content, which, like CO2, are polluting our information ecosystem and choking our online public space. Their impact threatens everything that we hold dear. Whether it’s anti-covid conspiracies and misinformation that continue to spread on social media platforms and undermine faith in science and scientists, or extremist content from groups that want to incite violence against minorities, some of the most fundamental pillars underpinning our societies are at risk – from democracy and human rights, to tolerance and the protection of our children.
But it is not just the problems caused by Big Tech that have much in common with environmental collapse. It is how we must go about solving the problem. Because we can solve it, but it will not be achieved by Big Tech and self regulation – but rather, just like with the climate crisis, it will need a grand Paris-style Agreement to help stop it before it’s too late. And this agreement will require the very highest levels of ambition.
The good news is this: with the Digital Services Act, the EU has a chance to create the sort of agreement we need. But only the most ambitious version of the Digital Services Act currently circulating in Brussels can meet this challenge. And right now, as Parliament, Council and Commission meet to negotiate the final form of the DSA, it is not at all clear that this version will win out.
If the EU is to deliver on the huge potential of the DSA, it should actually look to the original Paris Agreement for guidance.
First, like with climate change, tackling this global problem means we need to know the facts and get the science right. And that means a DSA that opens up the algorithmic black boxes. We need to understand how much Very Large Online Platforms, mainly through their algorithms, and with the simple goal of keeping us glued to their services, are accelerating the spread of harmful content in our societies. That’s why we need the strongest risk assessment, with rigorous auditing and multiplication of the eyes that can look into these services, through data access.
With that foundation, we can set clear and proportionate reduction targets for harmful content and keep Big Tech accountable to those targets through clear and specific mitigation measures. This is also where the DSA can become better than the Paris deal, with clear and centralised enforcement mechanisms.
If the EU delivers on those elements, the DSA could finally confront some of the most urgent threats to citizens all around the world – from self harm and self hate triggered in vulnerable groups like teenage girls, to extremism and the health – even survival – of our democracies.
With the Paris Agreement of 2015, Europe helped lead the way on tackling climate change. If done right, the DSA has the potential to be a similar groundbreaking agreement, this time confronting another global issue which impacts on all of us. The EU has a once-in-a-generation opportunity here – a chance to create a global gold standard that sets an example for the rest of the world and shows Europe at its best. All it needs now is for the EU leaders currently negotiating the agreement to realise it and rise to meet this moment.