Europe: Tackling content about Gaza and Israel must respect rule of law

Europe: Tackling content about Gaza and Israel must respect rule of law - Digital

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When tackling illegal online content related to conflict in Gaza, the rule of law matters.

The Digital Service Act (DSA) must not be exploited in times of conflict or crisis. Access Now and ARTICLE 19, along with 28 other global civil society organisations, have written to European Commissioner Thierry Breton, urging him to respect due process when enforcing the DSA in the context of ongoing armed conflict and unprecedented violence against civilians in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Read the open letter

As the Israeli-Hamas conflict escalates, Commissioner Breton has written to Meta, X, TikTok, and YouTube regarding the spread of related disinformation and illegal content on their respective platforms. Invoking the DSA, he has made several demands of these companies, which Access Now, ARTICLE 19 and partners believe to be at odds with the DSA itself. 

‘In times of war, the spread of illegal online content can threaten people’s safety and security,’ said Eliška Pírková, Global Freedom of Expression Lead at Access Now. ‘But prioritising speed over due diligence and misinterpreting DSA rules in order to justify shortsighted demands risks distorting accurate information about what is happening on the ground in Gaza and Israel.’

In his letters to the Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs), Commissioner Breton conflates the DSA’s treatment of illegal content and disinformation. But the latter is not automatically illegal. The DSA imposes due diligence obligations on VLOPs that tackle systemic risks stemming from such content rather than prioritising swift content removals. The DSA also does not include any mention of a 24-hour timeframe for VLOPs to respond to notifications of alleged illegal content, despite Commissioner Breton’s demands. 

‘For the EU enforcement of the DSA to be effective and credible, its actions must adhere to the letter of the law,’ said Mark Dempsey, Senior Advocacy Officer at ARTICLE 19. ‘Furthermore, freedom of expression must continue to apply, and be protected, during conflicts. To this end, it is especially important that platforms do not succumb to political pressure and disregard their responsibility to integrate freedom of expression considerations into their content moderation practices.’

The people of Gaza are already experiencing a near-total telecommunications blackout. During armed conflicts and violence, social media platforms are a lifeline for people to document human rights violations and share real-time security updates. While platforms must diligently combat content that risks people’s safety, unjustifiably restricting access to vital information is equally dangerous. Labelling legitimate content as ‘fake news’ only serves to silence historically oppressed groups and embolden their aggressors to commit further human rights violations.

Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and co-signatories support robust enforcement of the DSA, but not at the expense of due process and the rule of law. Commissioner Breton must clarify the requirements set out in his letters to VLOPs to ensure they uphold, rather than undermine, the DSA itself.