Online Crisis Protocols – Expanding the Regulatory Toolbox to Safeguard Democracy During Crises

Authors: Christian Schwieter

Published: 15 December 2022

The EU Digital Services Act (DSA) has brought with it a breadth of new regulatory tools seeking to create a “safer digital space” by protecting the fundamental rights of users and combating the proliferation of illegal and harmful content on online platforms. While there have been many discussions around platform liability, algorithmic audits and annual risk assessments, less attention has been paid to the last-minute additions to the DSA – namely mechanisms and protocols aimed to empower DSA regulators during so-called “crisis” events. To shine a light on this under-explored but potentially crucial new regulatory tool, ISD held a working group to a) review the lessons learned from existing online crisis protocols in the countering violent extremism (CVE) space and b) collect recommendations on how future crisis protocols and response mechanisms can be designed and implemented to safeguard, rather than undermine, fundamental rights.

Key lessons learned from existing crisis protocols in the CVE space:

  1. Smaller platforms and services play a key role in the spread of violent extremist content.
  2. Evidence for law enforcement must be preserved while ensuring the timely removal of illegal content.
  3. Expertise from the CVE space must be shared with the key stakeholders tasked with designing and implementing the broader crisis mechanisms of the DSA to improve capabilities, build capacities and avoid duplicative efforts.
  4. Fundamental rights must be safeguarded during, and in, the aftermath of crisis events via procedural accountability mechanisms, including regular consultations with stakeholders from civil society.

Key concerns and recommendations to safeguard fundamental rights in the context of the DSA crisis response mechanism:

  1. The Commission must clarify whether it will interpret a crisis event as defined in the DSA as a “state of emergency” in international human rights law (IHRL).
  2. There is a need for a complementary rapid response mechanism during crisis events through which civil society organisations (CSOs) can flag incorrect removals directly to platforms, possibly coordinated via the European Board for Digital Services (the Board).
  3. Delegated acts following the DSA must limit the role of the Commission by empowering the Board and improving the Board’s ability to act as an independent oversight body.
  4. There must be robust and timely data access provisions for independent researchers in order to evaluate the effectiveness and proportionality of the crisis response, potentially as part of a human rights impact assessment.

This Policy Paper is published as part of the Digital Policy Lab (DPL), an inter-governmental working group focused on charting the policy path forward to prevent and counter the spread of disinformation, hate speech, extremist and terrorist content online. It is comprised of representatives of relevant ministries and regulatory bodies from liberal democracies. The DPL aims to foster intergovernmental exchange, provide policymakers and regulators with access to sector-leading expertise and research, and build an international community of practice around key challenges in the digital policy space. We thank the German Federal Foreign Office for their support for this project.

Christian Schwieter is a Project Manager at ISD Germany, working at the intersection of digital analysis and digital policy. Since 2021, he has been leading the German-language research project on the far-right’s activity on alternative and emerging online platforms, funded by the Ministry of Justice. Previously, Christian worked as a researcher for the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute, where he co-authored reports on state-backed information operations relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Christian was the Specialist Adviser on Disinformation Matters for the UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee at the House of Commons. Christian holds an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford and a BA from Leiden University College The Hague, Netherlands.

This publication is also available in German.