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EU targets Google, Facebook, Twitter and other 'very large' tech companies with stricter rules

The Facebook logo is seen on a mobile phone, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston.
The Facebook logo is seen on a mobile phone, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston. Copyright AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Copyright AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
By Alice Tidey
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Tech companies with over 45 million active monthly users are considered "very large" by the European Commission and have to respect certain privacy and transparency obligations.

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Social media giants, Google, Alibaba, Amazon and Wikipedia are among the big tech companies that have been labelled "Very Large Online Platforms" by the European Commission and will now have to adhere to tighter rules under the bloc's landmark Digital Services Act (DSA).

The EU's executive unveiled its first list of 19 companies deemed "very large" on Tuesday. They received the accolade because they have at least 45 million monthly active users.

Seventeen have been dubbed Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs). They include Alibaba AliExpress, Amazon Store, Apple AppStore, Booking.com, Facebook, Google Play, Google Maps, Google Shopping, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Zalando.

Bing and Google Search have meanwhile been designated as Very Large Online Search Engines.

These companies now have four months to comply with the full set of new obligations under the DSA. The piece of legislation came into force in November and aims to strengthen the protection of users' rights online, and provide greater transparency and accountability.

'With great scale comes great responsibility'

They will, for instance, be required to give clear information on why they recommend certain information to certain users and allow these users to opt out; provide users with a simple tool to flag illegal content and with easily understandable terms and conditions; take stronger steps to counter the spread of illegal content and disinformation; and give researchers access to publicly available data.

Crucially, they will have to allow experts from the newly-created European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency (ECAT), an EU agency, to assess whether their algorithm is in line with the various obligations. 

"Thanks to the Digital Services Act, European citizens and businesses will benefit from a safer internet," European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton said in a video released on Twitter.

"As of 25 of August, online platforms and search engines with more than 45 million active users in the EU will have stronger obligations because with great scale comes great responsibility," he added. 

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, described the list as "not especially surprising."

"It is notable that, as expected, very few European companies will face the toughest regulation under the DSA - with a few exceptions such as Booking.com," he told Euronews. 

"There are some surprising omissions from the list, including Spotify and Airbnb, although the Commission has said it is still examining whether additional companies need to comply with the toughest requirements – so they may not want to relax just yet," he added. 

Porn sites could be next

A Commission official said that the executive is currently engaging with a number of other services, including several pornographic websites, to determine whether they reach the 45 million active user threshold and should thus be designated as very large. 

They stressed that the DSA is "quite dynamic" and that new services could be added in the coming months and years while others could be removed.

The engagement with the various companies that have been labelled very large has so far been described as constructive and the Commission, the official added, will be taking further steps in the next four months to ensure the various companies are ready to comply with the DSA, in particular with the obligations pertaining to the protection of minors. 

On Twitter,  whose change of leadership and mass layoffs in recent months have caused worry for regulators, the official said that a number of meetings between Breton and CEO Elon Musk have taken place to boost readiness preparations.

These very large companies will be supervised by Commission experts while member states have until February 2024 to set up national agencies to oversee smaller platforms and search engines that will also have to respect these obligations. 

Dr. Christophe Carugati, an expert on competition and digital policies for Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, said that "now, the Commission has to work on implementing the regulation to ensure that the obligations effectively protect users online and must increase its human resources to deal with this new responsibility as a regulator of online content."

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