The European Union has just set a new global standard for regulating technology giants that are worth trillions of dollars and used by billions of people for communication, entertainment, payments and news. After 16 hours of negotiations, lawmakers approved a law forcing them to police their platforms more aggressively and take down content they deem illegal quickly, or face huge fines. The laws, which begin to take effect next year, also give regulators broader powers to force companies to respond rapidly during a national security or public health crisis. That could include stopping the spread of state propaganda on social media during a war or the online sale of bogus medical supplies and drugs during a pandemic.
The new EU law will impact popular Meta-owned sites like Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. It will also make it harder for big tech to target users with online ads based on their age, gender or race, and ban targeting children with advertising. It would also require companies to add ways for users to flag illicit content. The legislation comes after a year of intense pressure from activists, politicians and parents who say that big tech’s free services are hurting kids, leading to depression and promoting hate speech. The new rules are just the latest step in Europe’s efforts to put meaningful pressure on tech giants to do more to protect democracy, safety and privacy.
A new report by the Internet Freedom Monitoring Project finds that governments around the world impose network and social media shutdowns more frequently and for longer periods of time than ever before. These shutdowns can range from blocking access to entire platforms — including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber — to limiting bandwidth or throttling mobile data transfer speeds. In many cases, the reason for a shutdown is to quell or cover up protests or elections.
These shutdowns have significant human rights costs. They smother freedom of expression and prevent journalists from doing their jobs. They limit people’s ability to access healthcare and other essential services, run businesses or move around. They can even create cover for government violence and other human rights abuses.
During the riots that rocked France earlier this month, some have linked popular online platforms to the violence, suggesting that rioters organized themselves through these sites. Amid the tumult, French President Emmanuel Macron signaled that the government could shut down the internet if it found that the sites were inciting violence or unrest.
This is just the latest attempt by authoritarian regimes to smother dissent and prevent transparency during times of political unrest or conflict. The European Union’s new set of laws will make it more difficult for governments to use these tactics and should help to protect the rights of millions of users who depend on digital services for their livelihoods. We’ve already seen a few major victories in the fight against internet shutdowns in recent weeks, with Chad and Ethiopia lifting government-ordered Internet disruptions that had been in place for months, and Benin lifting its ban on WhatsApp during its election last week.