How The Digital Services Act Could Change What Europeans See Online
In the coming weeks the European Parliament aims to adopt its position on the Digital Services Act (DSA). The DSA defines and attempts to rebalance how digital services operate in Europe. It changes the rules defining what and how users view content they love online, and how businesses connect with potential future consumers.
There’s an audience for almost everything, and recommender systems are crucial to help connect users with content they consider relevant to them. Just consider how hard it would be to navigate all of the books in a massive library without the help of librarians. Since each viewer has a unique taste profile, it’s not as simple as cooking up a recipe with ingredients that produce a recommender system. Recommender systems constantly evolve; they learn from similar users’ habits – with the habits themselves maturing. Various user features (e.g., clicks, likes, dislikes, shares, watchtime) specific to each digital service also modulate and influence the process. Furthermore, digital services demote low-quality or divisive content, and promote high-quality sources. For instance, national authorities’ channels are promoted to ensure EU citizens are informed about COVID-19 risks and vaccines. Several technology companies (e.g., Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla) use recommender systems to fight illegal and harmful content (e.g., disinformation) as supported by the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation.
Helping users understand how recommender systems work is one of the DSA’s objectives. The European Commission originally required very large online platforms (VLOPs) to disclose the main parameters used in the recommender systems in a clear and accessible manner within their terms and conditions, and to acknowledge any options to modify or influence those main parameters. Some members of the European Parliament want to extend obligations much further. Proposals include imposing transparency measures to all online platforms, while VLOPs would have to firstly provide at least one recommender system option not based on profiling, and secondly offer accessible functionality to select or modify the preferred option for each recommender system. While promoting transparency is welcomed, the latest proposed measures applicable to VLOPs would have negative and unintended consequences.
The DSA should support users in having a high-quality experience online. One essential component of a user-friendly online experience is personalisation. Recommender systems enable this personalisation, because they tailor digital services to meet the expectations of each user. Consumers like to see relevant information, products and services – not totally random content. Moreover, recommender systems allow platforms to moderate their content – a vital functionality for preventing adverse effects, such as spam. Some popular platforms are nothing but personalised recommender systems. Requiring digital services to introduce features that disable personalisation by default would damage Europeans’ user experiences, create high engineering costs, and make some platforms useless.
Another unintended consequence of a “no-profiling” alternative obligation would be to risk compromising users’ safety. For example, a child could be confronted with inappropriate content. Such a scenario would totally defeat the DSA’s number one objective of ensuring the safety of users online.
All this said, lawmakers have been asking legitimate questions about content and data processing. These matters are covered by the EU’s comprehensive data protection framework. Risking having an internal market instrument like the DSA colliding with the EU’s recent data protection rules would certainly create confusion unnecessarily. This would run counter to the DSA’s objective of providing legal clarity. Indeed, the European Commission says the DSA must apply “without prejudice” to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to ensure legal certainty and support innovation. The final DSA text to be adopted by the European Parliament and EU Member States should maintain the Commission’s stipulation.
The GDPR already gives users the right to refuse that their data be processed. Online platforms may equally offer users the tools to disable personalisation if users wish to do so. EU policymakers should afford online platforms enough flexibility to design features that would best match and optimize their digital services. If the DSA limits platforms’ room for manoeuvre on product design, it will harm innovation and deteriorate user experience and satisfaction in Europe.
To improve user and consumer understanding of how and why content is displayed on their screen, the DSA should encourage online platforms to be more transparent about how their recommender systems work. It’s worth noting that a business’ recommender system is part of what differentiates it from its competitors. To maintain a level playing field, the DSA should protect digital services’ trade secrets and intellectual property. The DSA shouldn’t leave any possibility for rogue players to game the system.
For Europe to be fit for the digital age and thrive, the DSA will need to go beyond its robust measures ensuring user safety and bringing legal clarity to the online world. The DSA will also need to remain uncompromising on the quality of users’ experience with online platforms. Recommender systems are a crucial tool in meeting all the DSA’s objectives, as they connect users with the content they want while keeping them safe. It will be crucial therefore to leave online platforms the flexibility to keep innovating and improving their recommendation systems.