The law on digital services must make room for civil society
The writer is a whistleblower and former Facebook employee
I became a whistleblower as a last resort. During my time at Facebook, I discovered the ugly truth that the company’s choices were endangering lives around the world and that it had withheld information the public needed to protect themselves. That’s why I released documents that showed what the tech giant knew and how it still hadn’t acted.
Many call me brave, but today I want to credit the role of an underrated “early warning system” – civil society. Countless brilliant researchers and determined investigators from around the world – Spain, France, the Netherlands, Myanmar, India, Brazil – have spent years alerting social media platforms and lawmakers to crises, often in real time. They’re far from Big Tech’s resources, but much of the public analysis of social media harms is due to the massive evidence base they’ve created. Without it, emerging regulation would be based on theories of harm rather than actual facts.
That’s why I urge lawmakers to ensure that civil society organizations that have demonstrated integrity and excellence in research have access to platform data under the digital services (DSA). Right now, EU lawmakers have a golden opportunity to change the rules of the game and create a world-class data access regime. They must ensure that a final agreement provides strong and secure access to accredited researchers from civil society and not just academia.
Representing the interests of citizens – the users of social media – these groups have long provided “SOS alerts” to platforms and policy makers based on local knowledge. In December last year, researchers warned of a massive increase in Russian propaganda on social media, preceding the full-scale assault on Ukraine in February. Tracking hate speech and misinformation in languages such as Latvian (Latvian) or Czech requires eyes on the ground that only civil society brings. That’s why these organizations need access to meaningful public content, allowing them to see in real time which stories are going viral and how stories can be coordinated. Organizations such as Global Witness, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Avaaz are the canaries in the coal mine and far better placed than academics to sound the alarm in emerging conflicts.
Access to data can save lives. One of my goals in presenting so much internal data on Facebook was to prove that the platform spends relatively little to protect you if you don’t speak English. Eighty-seven percent of Facebook’s operational budget to fight misinformation is dedicated to protecting users in the United States, who make up just 10% of its user base. By providing access to data, the DSA can recognize that activists and researchers will continue to be a first line of defense. Civil society issued the first alerts that vulnerable refugees from the Middle East were being sent false stories about EU reception, putting them at serious risk of physical violence and detention. Their research can prevent violence, help save lives and enable access to justice.
We don’t know how online misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda will evolve, especially in Web 3.0 and the metaverse. But it will evolve. If we create a choke point in the DSA and only allow regulators or academics to be able to open the black box of platform algorithms, then we will create a big loophole in its transparency regime.
There are legitimate fears that opening data access could mean that sensitive data ends up in the wrong hands. These are not unreasonable fears but they are surmountable. The law could ensure that adequate safeguards are put in place, by examining possible conflicts of interest, the funding of organizations, the rigor of their research, the independence of any state, etc. These same robust criteria can ensure that only organizations that are GDPR compliant and can be trusted not to disclose trade secrets are granted access. Ideally, the DSA would facilitate the creation of an independent mechanism that would be able to review researchers and research proposals.
The question of data access for civil society should center on “how” and “who” should get it, rather than “if”. More than 100 civil society organizations have signed the People’s Declaration in the EU asking to put ‘the people in the driver’s seat’ in the framework of the DSA. The way to do this is to access the data. The collective expertise of whistleblowers and civil society research played a vital role in shaping the law. In these final negotiations, the EU must enshrine in law the role we can continue to play in protecting our children, our democracies and our freedoms.