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CDT EU Hosts DSA Civil Society Roundtable

On the 17th of April, CDT Europe and Open Government Partnership held the Fifth DSA Civil Society Roundtable Series event in Brussels. As the Digital Services Act (DSA) finally comes into full force, this was a unique opportunity for more than 90 participants from national regulatory bodies, the European institutions, academia and civil society to come together and have detailed discussions on various aspects of DSA implementation in practice. In this blog post, we will share the key insights and overarching themes that emerged during technical workshop discussions, with a view to provide useful details as to what priorities and challenges different stakeholders face, but also to identify potential areas where collaboration can be improved.

Setting the Scene

The event began with a high-level panel discussion,  introduced by Jack Hamande, representing the Belgian Presidency of the European Council, followed by an exchange on the subject of effective mechanisms to ensure human-rights centred compliance and enforcement featuring Marco Giorello from the European Commission, Bernardo Herman from the Belgian Digital Services Coordinator, Tim Hughes the Democracy and Participation Lead at the Open Government Partnership and our own Asha Allen, Director of the Online Expression Programme at CDT Europe.

The panel discussion set the tone for the rest of the event, as a key theme became clear from the get-go: the panellists agreed that the DSA is essentially an exercise in multi-stakeholder collaboration and that its success hinges precisely on how effectively the expertise, knowledge and resources of all stakeholders can be leveraged.

With this in mind, participants headed into five technical workshops, led by civil society partners from the DSA Civil Society Coordination Group, an informal coalition of civil society organisations, academics and public interest technologists who advocate for the protection of international human rights standards, respect for the rule of law and human rights due diligence in the development, implementation and enforcement of the DSA. The Expert workshops were organised around five thematic areas:

  1. DSA as a global standard: the xtra-territorial impacts of the DSA & EU Digital Foreign Policy
  1. Ensuring effective DSA enforcement – Cooperation and Coordination between National Regulators, CSOs and the European Commission
  1. Assessing and mitigating systemic risks: Exploring general approaches, recommender systems and elections
  1. Vetting key stakeholders: Trusted Flaggers and Researchers
  1. Monitoring compliance: Establishing mechanisms & evidence gathering

Deep Dive

Following Chatham House rules, these workshops enabled in-depth discussions which brought to the surface important insights as to: a) what the current state of affairs is regarding the European Commission, the DSCs and civil society when it comes to their internal priorities and general engagement and b) what areas of collaboration and information-exchange can be improved between these stakeholders, keeping in mind the core values of transparency, participation, inclusion, and accountability that are at the core of the DSA.

  1. Current state of affairs; different priorities for different stakeholders.

For the European Commission, the supervisory authority for Very Large Online Platforms and Very Large Online Search Engines, the DSA has been in action since August 2023 and several enforcement decisions have already been taken, including 49 Requests for Information (RfIs) and 8 ongoing investigations. As the most ‘experienced’ stakeholder in the enforcement of the DSA thus far, the EC has a significant role to play, not least because it is also the chair of the European Board of Digital Services (aka the Board). The EC will therefore be essential in creating a collaborative spirit and establishing clear Rules of Procedure for the Board – both of which will be particularly important when dealing with contentious topics across jurisdictions and different national contexts, as well as responding to crises, for instance during elections.

Digital Services Coordinators, on the other hand, are proceeding at different speeds at national level, which is a factor of the capacity that they dispose of, but also the number and size of platforms that are established in their Member State. A key priority for DSCs at the moment, beyond prioritising the establishment of the internal mechanisms they will need, is to work collaboratively with their counterparts to better understand the numerous provisions of the DSA, and their precise role in monitoring compliance and enforcement. In addition, DSC’s are currently exploring approaches for stakeholder engagement at national level, as well as the functioning of the Board, which will have significant powers when it comes to monitoring compliance with the DSA transnationally.

Finally, Civil Society Organisations are working collaboratively and determining how to allocate their limited resources most efficiently in order to deal with the unprecedented breadth of the DSA, at a time when resources  are increasingly scarce, and civic space continues to shrink in the EU. This means coordinating between organisations to avoid duplication in research, while also trying to understand where the European Commission and the DSCs are most in need of support for evidence gathering, despite the lack of clarity on key areas, such as the ‘systemic risks’.

  1. Areas where collaboration and information exchange can be improved

A common theme between different workshops was the need for more clarity on the procedural aspects of DSA enforcement. This could take the form of a public timeline, similar to the one OFCOM (British Communications regulator) has provided, where specific information is shared ahead of time on what kinds of input will be useful from civil society and when. This would alleviate the need to rely on informal information channels and would encourage organisations at the margins to participate more easily. Similarly, a (tentative) timeline of key opportunities to provide specific insights – for example with the guidelines for Trusted Flaggers or upcoming Delegated Act on Data Access – was suggested as a way to shed much-needed light on where resources should be focused for research in the medium-to-long term. Such mechanisms would be useful for civil society to identify the most strategic and relevant points of engagement based on their expertise. It would also ensure that a wider, more diverse, pool of civil society can assist regulators in their duties. This is particularly essential for CSOs representing groups who are disproportionately impacted by issues such as hate speech and other online harms.

Across the workshops, standards for evidence gathering also emerged as a key theme in this area, particularly as CSOs seek to identify what would be most useful to those monitoring compliance. For example, as an early priority, many CSOs have engaged in research such as developing a better understanding of the ‘threshold’ for a ‘systemic risk’, or methodological approaches to conducting a risk assessment, or ascertaining how much data would be needed for a study/report to be useful in the context of an investigation. Though the European Commission has done much to clarify these questions on standards for evidence, (including through dedicated roundtables with organisations), one suggestion was to create a database that lists all the studies that have been useful in the past so that academics and organisations can refer back to them not only methodologically, but also thematically.

Another aspect where the point of collaboration was explored was in the relationship between the European Center for Algorithmic Transparency (ECAT), how it operates in collaboration with the European Commission when it comes to general compliance monitoring, evidence gathering and supporting investigations, and where CSOs can best support this work. Although some information will be confidential regarding that partnership, the consensus was that any information pertaining to the procedure or the substance of enforcement is invaluable to civil society, so long as it is communicated in a structured way. Researchers would also benefit from more clarity on what general areas or themes the research at ECAT focuses on at this stage.

Structured Mechanisms of Collaboration

With these granular reflections exchanged, participants reflected on pathways forward, in formalising and better structuring cooperation between regulatory bodies, civil society organisations and researchers. From the perspective of national regulators and the EC – although the value that CSOs bring to the table is unquestionable – it is still unclear what precise format(s) a mechanism for civil society consultation could take. 

Participants agreed, however, that the establishment of the European Board for Digital Services presented the clearest opportunity. The Board – constituted of the Digital Services Coordinators (DSCs) and chaired by the European Commission (EC) – will play a pivotal role in DSA enforcement and was identified during the discussion as a promising mechanism where civil society can meaningfully contribute in a structured and consistent way to support enforcement actions at EU and Member State level.

Suggestions to develop dedicated spaces for civil society to exchange with the Board within the foreseen Rules of Procedure emerged as one possible and promising method. Given that logistically not every NGO can be in an advisory role, a key challenge would then be how to ensure effective and efficient exchange with civil society while also ensuring a healthy diversity of opinions. To address this in the context of the Board, different expert groups could be responsible for different thematic areas, but civil society and regulators need to work together to find a concrete long-term solution.

This more efficient manner of cooperation also rings true at national level; for example, umbrella organisations among civil society that are in touch with national-level CSOs could facilitate connecting with DSCs in a more streamlined way, as the information flow from organisations locally is limited at the moment, even in national contexts that have experience in engaging with civil society. Equally important is the exchange of information between DSCs in terms of sharing experiences, solutions and best practices regarding their CSO engagement.

Conclusion

Overall, it was clear, across varied thematic areas covered in the expert workshops, that numerous aspects of DSA implementation, compliance monitoring and enforcement will require much deeper collaboration between regulatory authorities, civil society and public interest groups. These dedicated, limited stakeholder spaces will continue to be essential in ensuring the legislation lives up to its potential in creating a safer, more equitable digital ecosystem.

The Fifth edition of the CDT Europe and OGP Roundtable Series was once again an opportunity to bring together institutions and civil society, to establish channels of communication and to understand each other’s challenges. As the DSA matures, however, these channels must crystallise into permanent structures to ensure predictability and efficiency.

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