Brussels wants more power to audit how tech companies harvest and use consumer data, as the EU prepares to launch a consultation on its flagship digital platform regulation.
After pausing work on this year’s Digital Services Act during the coronavirus crisis, senior EU officials are now considering plans to force companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to be more transparent.
“We need to be able to look under the hood,” said one person with direct knowledge of the discussions. “Currently, we have no systematic way of finding out what’s going on. In the areas of disinformation or illegal content we always have to take the company’s word for it.”
“People are tired of that,” the person added. “It’s not like we want their secrets but we need to make sure that areas of public interest are checked.”
The idea has the backing of EU commissioners in charge of digital policy including Thierry Breton, Vera Jourova and Margrethe Vestager, according to multiple people, who added that calls for tougher scrutiny and legal oversight have gained traction in the last few weeks.
Internet companies have responded to the coronavirus crisis by moving quickly to remove misleading content and warning users about disinformation.
While that has won praise in Brussels, there are also now questions about whether companies can be similarly proactive in tackling other harmful content.
Alex Saliba, an MEP in charge of drafting recommendations for the new internet rules, said the pandemic has shown US technology companies can do more.
“I am totally in favour of a system where the European Commission will work towards a system where consumers and regulators will have more information on how tech giants work. We must have a clearer picture.”
Earlier this month Google said it was requiring all advertisers using its platform to verify their identities and countries of origin, something the search giant demanded only in political ads.
Separately, Facebook last week said it will start alerting users if they have been exposed to disinformation on its platform. Twitter has aggressively removed misleading or “potentially harmful” content since introducing new policies in March that broadened the company’s definition of harm.
The European Union is overhauling for the first time in two decades the rules that govern the internet in light of the emergence of US dominant platforms but the process will be slow.
Following a consultation with stakeholders on the proposals, it may take at least two years to agree on new rules and they are unlikely to enter into force for years.
Facebook, Google and Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.