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20 Oct 2023

EU measures aimed at tech companies in relation to the conflict in Gaza draws criticism

Since the escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict on October 7th, news outlets, broadcasters, and civil society organizations have issued warnings about the proliferation of disinformation and various forms of illegal content on social media platforms. This trend is particularly concerning given the ongoing violence and loss of life in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Israel. Additionally, the EU Commissioner has taken steps to enforce compliance with the Digital Service Act (DSA) on social media platform companies, which has prompted reactions from tech firms and criticism and concern from civil society organizations, as detailed below:

EU Commissioner warnings on illegal and harmful content

In this context, the European Commission has exerted pressure on social media platforms to take steps to remove illegal and harmful content in order to ensure compliance with the DSA. On October 10, European Commissioner Thierry Breton issued a warning to Elon Musk regarding alleged disinformation concerning the Hamas attack on Israel. This disinformation included fake news, manipulated images, and inaccuracies shared on X. In his letter, the EU Commissioner urged X Corp to address the complaints within a 24-hour timeframe. Advocates criticized the Commissioner's approach as political and dangerously conflating illegal content that requires mandatory action with disinformation that only requires an increase in due diligence.

Subsequently, from October 10 to October 13, Commissioner Breton issued letters to Meta, TikTok, Google, and its subsidiary TikTok, concerning the circulation of illegal content and disinformation related to the Israel-Hamas conflict on these social media platforms. It's worth noting that the letter to Google did not directly imply that the company was spreading illegal content or disinformation. Instead, it requested information about the steps taken by Google and YouTube, to address disinformation and graphic content related to the Hamas-Israel conflict. Notably, the 24-hour deadline mentioned in previous letters was not included in the communication with Google.

Response to the EU Commissioner's Warning

In response to the letter from the EU Commissioner, social media companies provided information about the measures they have taken. For instance, X Corporation stated that they have taken steps to remove hundreds of Hamas-affiliated accounts and have labeled or suppressed thousands of pieces of content since the attack. Additionally, X Corporation requested more information from the EU Commission regarding violations on its platform.

Meta reported that they have removed or marked more than 795,000 disturbing pieces of content in Hebrew or Arabic. It also claimed to have allocated special resources to combat illegal and problematic content related to the Hamas-Israel conflict.

TikTok announced that they have assigned more personnel and resources to combat misinformation on their platforms. The company claimed it has removed over 500,000 videos and 800,000 live streams in the region.

YouTube stated that its teams have removed thousands of harmful videos and affirmed that they continue to actively monitor for harmful footage, taking swift action across the platform.

EU Investigations into Social Media Platforms

After the reactions from social media companies to the letters, the EU Commissioner has initiated investigations into social media companies X Corp, Meta, and TikTok aiming to obtain more details on the measures they have implemented to combat the spread of such content in the current context.

As reported by various media outlets, X Corp had until October 18 to provide details about its crisis response protocol and content moderation practices, and until October 31 on other aspects of content moderation.

Meta and TikTok face a deadline of October 25 for their initial responses, with further questions related to protecting election integrity due by November 8. Additionally, TikTok is required to provide information about its measures for protecting minors online by the same November deadline.

Failure to comply with the DSA could result in significant fines, amounting to as much as 6% of a company's global turnover, or the suspension of the platform.

CSOs call to respect the rule of law

On 18 October, Article19, Access Now and more than 28 civil society organizations issued a joint letter urging the EU Commissioner to respect due process when enforcing the DSA amid the ongoing armed conflict and unprecedented violence against civilians in the Gaza Strip and Israel. The civil society organizations stated that they support robust enforcement of the DSA but not at the expense of due process; and that, during armed conflicts and violence, social media platforms are a lifeline for people to document human rights violations and share real-time updates, unjustifiably restricting access to vital information and repressing voices is dangerous. They requested that EU Commissioner Breton clarify the requirements outlined in his communications to the technology companies to ensure the upholding of the DSA, rather than undermine it.