Challenges to Majority World Participation in European Union’s Data Access for Platform Researchers Consultation
Article 40 of the Digital Services Act (DSA) enables vetted public interest researchers to access data from very large online platforms with over 45 million active users in the European Union (EU). The EU recently opened a submission period for comments on the implementation of data access for platform researchers under this provision. A critical question is whether Article 40 should be interpreted as personally or institutionally limited to researchers based in the EU. Notably, the DSA does not suggest such a limitation, and there is international advocacy aimed at broadening access.
The discussion revolves around the considerable costs and time required for research allowed under Article 40. Various factors, including infrastructure, data access conditions, determination of the accessed data, availability, non-discrimination, independence, and publicity, underscore the need for international collaboration. Importantly, studying the information ecosystem within existing and projected technology necessitates interjurisdictional research.
The EU and the US appear to be in agreement and are collaborating on the issue. Interestingly, the majority of submissions received within the EU consultation came from the US rather than Europe. Notably, no submissions were received from academics or universities in the global south, including LATAM, Africa, Asia, or India, despite several research centers focusing on internet governance and related matters. CELE made an effort to contribute, but its submission has not appeared on the website or the list of submissions for reasons that remain unclear. This raises questions about the importance of data access for researchers in countries or regions outside the US and Europe.
We believe that the lack of comments is not due to a lack of interest but rather a matter of resources, priorities, and agenda. This distinction is significant because misdiagnoses may lead to misguided actions and efforts in the DSA implementation.
Barriers to Participation from the Majority World
There are various reasons that explain the absence of submissions or engagement from majority world countries and regions. Let’s examine four sources of potential difficulties: the nature of the forum itself, the conditions affecting civil society and academia in the majority world, recent trends in consultation processes and specific priorities and agendas.
Organizations engage in forums they perceive as relevant, seeking to maximize impact while minimizing resources. Foreign, resource-intensive agendas, especially those set in Brussels, which is highly bureaucratic, complex, and expensive, pose challenges. The development and drafting of the DSA proved to be a significant challenge for organizations outside the EU, and it remains unclear whether voices from outside Europe will be considered in the upcoming process.
Conditions Affecting the Global South Digital Rights Ecosystem
Organizations and academics in LATAM are often overwhelmed by their own local and regional contexts. Most local and regional organizations in the majority world address a range of issues, including freedom of expression, privacy, association, data protection, artificial intelligence, and media studies. Unlike academia or organizations in the US and Europe, where specialized bodies may work on different levels (local, international, regional), majority world organizations typically engage in local, regional, and global forums simultaneously. There is a challenging political economy of civil society advocacy and engagement that impacts organizations in non-European/US countries.
Additionally, comparative studies in the global south are not as well developed or financed as those in the global north, leading to a significant research gap. This gap hinders the creation of accurate comparative studies or trend identifications between global north and south countries/regions, as well as comprehensive studies impacting information ecosystems across global north/global south borders. For the purposes of our discussion both areas of work are important since the aforementioned challenges will prevent civil society and academia from working on the issues until those materialize into concrete local or regional risks or incentives. Moreover, the implementation of article 40 of the DSA has the potential to either help bridge the existing research gap or expand it even further.
Trends in consultation processes
Recent trends in consultation processes have shown a rather passive approach by local, regional, and international authorities. This has been the case with many recent processes (including but not limited to UNGC, UNESCO`s Internet for Trust Initiative, Tech for democracy, U.S. Sumit for Democracy initiative, etc). While open consultations are valuable, an approach that merely relies on «if you build it, they will come» may not yield meaningful participation, especially from the global south. To foster better engagement, a proactive and intentional approach is necessary, given the exponential growth in the number of forums and open consultation processes.
The European Commission’s initiative in the US serves as a successful example of proactive and intentional engagement. In September 2022, the European Commission opened an office in San Francisco to “reinforce the EU’s cooperation with the United States on digital diplomacy and strengthen the EU’s capacity to reach out to key public and private stakeholders, including policy makers, the business community, and civil society in the digital technology sector.” However, replicating such an approach in every majority world country is challenging due to specific reasons: San Francisco’s significant tech industry presence and the expertise, specialization, and funding of US universities and research centers make it a suitable location for this office.
Priorities and Agendas
Beyond procedural barriers, other difficulties related to priorities and agendas impact meaningful engagement. Differences in priorities and their manifestation are essential to consider if the DSA is to be exported as a model for the regulation of internet companies worldwide. While disinformation, hate speech, and radicalization are common concerns globally, their manifestations and nature may differ across regions. For instance, the government’s use and abuse of social media and the internet are significant concerns in majority world countries, an issue not adequately addressed in the DSA. To foster better engagement, creating space within the discussion for such issues to be raised, voiced, and potentially addressed is crucial.
What can be done?
Seeking active and meaningful engagement in majority world countries requires a proactive approach. Although the answer to this question may not be entirely straightforward, several factors should be taken into account:
- Promoting these conversations across different regions: by fostering a presence in regional conferences, meetings or spaces where opportunities for input and sharing can be socialized. EU authorities could engage in these exercises through their embassies or other diplomatic engagements; funders could also provide support for these spaces to be created or to grant access to existing spaces for debate.
- Mapping the ecosystem and working through existing networks: There is already an ecosystem that works on internet governance issues. Tapping into existing networks to disseminate consultation calls can be extremely useful. The DSA alliance is putting some effort into this. However, engagement with decision making authorities remains essential.
- EU authorities could intentionally invite key actors from majority world countries to participate more actively in some european discussions while providing direct access to decision making authorities.
- Funders and governments alike could support some majority world organizations and academics specifically to engage in these processes, with a view towards medium and long term engagement rather than sporadic and ad hoc collaboration.
- Diversity should be promoted and funding initiatives could contribute to the specialization of interested organizations in specific issues. While this recommendation is not necessarily targeted at European authorities but rather the funding community more broadly, actively seeking and welcoming comparative approaches and majority world expertise in these debates can foster a better environment for organizations to fundraise.
- The recommendations set forth in the report of the Task Force for a Trustworthy Future Web also come in handy, particularly those set forth in section 4:
- “4.1 Provide flexible, general support to civil-society organizations and leaders working within, and on behalf of, their own communities to understand how technology is used, abused, and broadly impacts society. Ensure this network of organizations, particularly in marginalized communities in the Global North and those outside of the United States and Europe, is able to sustain and grow efforts to moni- tor, document, and inform companies, regulatory structures and processes, standards-setting bodies, governance forums, and other civil-society colleagues working to understand and improve the digital world.
- 4.4 Ensure that regulatory provisions requiring consultation with external civil-society experts (on topics such as risk assessments, systemic harms, etc.) also account for the material support civil society needs to fulfill that role and provide such services.
- 4.6 Facilitate access to centers of power by global-majority organizations. This may include providing dedicated spaces for co-living/co-working in places like Brussels, San Francisco, or Washington, DC, as well as supporting legal and technical assistance with relocation costs, immigration and employment complexities, and sustainability models.
- 4.7 Fund research and pilot new funding models to support civil-society organizations working in contexts where foreign funding of rights/risk-based activities are increasingly monitored and curtailed.”
The lack of submissions from the global south in the EU’s data access for researchers consultation is concerning but not surprising. Barriers preventing organizations and actors from the majority world from accessing these debates are not solely related to data governance and access. Throughout the text, we have identified several gaps and ideas to address them from a majority world perspective. One common aspect affecting engagement is funding. Funding partners and institutions play a key role and are best suited to contribute substantially to bridge existing gaps. Adopting long-term goals and a systemic approach is essential to contribute and strengthen interjurisdictional initiatives requiring active and meaningful engagement. Considering the opportunities for global majority researchers to engage in Article 40 of DSA implementation can be a good and worthwhile endeavor deserving careful consideration moving forward.