Google search
Image Credit: Shutterstock

I am old enough to remember the first time I ever logged onto a computer. For the record, it was May 15, 1989. I know the date because it was the morning when I started work as a Reporter on a paper in Toronto.

Mobile phones weren’t around — and the internet certainly wasn’t. I am also old enough to remember when mobile phones came in — looking like something you’d use to call in an artillery strike on a hill in Vietnam. They were big and clumsy. And all you could do was make a phone call.

Fast forward about 15 years later, and I can remember joining Facebook. I was working for another newspaper in Toronto and joined so that I could get access to photographs of Canadian soldiers who were serving in Afghanistan and were killed or injured.

Back then, once you were on Facebook — there were only a few million of us — privacy concerns weren’t important and the photos of the smiling soldiers and their families made it possible to fill in details of their lives.

Thinking back, those were the wild west days, where privacy and data collection mattered little.

As a journalist who has worked in this news business for four decades, the biggest threat now comes in the form of social media — and the ability of pretty much anyone to say pretty much anything without fear of consequence. But for every media professional in a print, web or television, we are held to a far higher and exacting standard — one where there are legal and financial consequences for wilfully being misleading and getting things wrong or being inaccurate.

Accusatory phrase of ‘fake news’

Yet it is the ‘traditional’ media who have been tainted with that accusatory phrase of ‘fake news’ that shreds what I have done these past decades.

Now, at least in Europe, the big tech companies face huge fines should they fail to tackle the endemic issues of false and fake posts on their social media platforms.

The EU’s new Digital Services Act (DSA) has been agreed and will soon become law across the 27 member states. It forces tech firms such as Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta, as well as other internet services, to more aggressively combat hate speech and misinformation or risk multibillion-euro fines.

Under the DSA, companies will be required to strictly police their online platforms by setting up new policies and procedures to quickly remove flagged hate speech, terrorist propaganda and any other content deemed illegal by countries within the bloc and its 500 million or so consumers.

This is the second piece of significant legislation that is changing the social media landscape across the continent.

Four years ago, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) brought in better protection over the information, data and online profiles held by the social media companies, and enforces strict codes strict over just how and when that data is used — and for how long.

Because the GDPR is so wide-ranging and far-reaching and applies to companies who do business with anyone living in the EU, it has a knock-on effect on those who live outside the EU.

The new Digital Services Act will be equally important. It bans, for example, ads targeted at minors from these companies’ platforms, as well as ads based on a user’s gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It will also get companies to disclose how their services spread or amplify divisive content.

While the new rules aim to make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platforms’ algorithms, online platforms and search engines with more than 45 million users in the European Union will face additional scrutiny, including fines of up to 6 per cent of a company’s annual global revenue and banning repeat offenders.

With that level of potential fine, it’s small wonder that the big tech companies tried to fight the introduction of the DSA initially. Now, with the law coming into effect sooner rather than later, there is little choice but for the companies to fall into line.

Google says it welcomes the EU efforts to make “the internet even more safe, transparent and accountable” and says it will work with officials “to get the remaining technical details right to ensure the law works for everyone.”

Similarly, Twitter responded to the new regulations by saying the company looks “forward to reviewing the regulation in detail.’

With Elon Musk intent on buying the platform to expand freedom of speech, the new DSA rules in Europe seem at odds with the tech entrepreneur’s altruistic ambitions.

Agreed in principle, the DSA will now move through the approval process at the European Parliament and will become law before 2024 at the latest.

Just how social media twists and blatantly lies about events is one on the key points raised by Philippine journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Maria Ressa earlier this week as she visited Europe. Speaking on the sidelines of an event in Geneva to mark World Press Freedom Day, the 58-year-old co-founder of the news website Rappler highlighted how social media had made it far easier to spread propaganda, reject facts and change historical realities.

If there is a light, it is that once the EU puts laws in place such as the GDPR or the DSA, other nations quickly follow suit, using the framework of the European legislation as a template for their own national laws. And that will be a good day’s work.