The September edition of Democracy Drinks was a special occasion. As well as kicking off our networking event series after summer break, the evening marked the unofficial inauguration of Liberties’ new headquarters in Potsdamer Platz. In anticipation of our upcoming report on civic space, Jascha Galaski, advocacy officer at Liberties, discussed the dangers of online activism with guest speaker Dr. Julian Jaursch, project director for policy and platform regulation at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) and renowned Digital Services Act (DSA) expert.
Online civic space: a hostile working environment
Jascha Galaski kicked off the lively discussion by previewing the main trends from our online civic space report, which covers 11 EU countries and is due to be released in October. The report found that both the EU and member states fell short of their duty to protect fundamental rights online. As a result, smear and disinformation campaigns, harassment, doxxing and hate speech has become par for the course for civil rights defenders. Prior to the introduction of the DSA last year, the absence of clear rules regulating the digital sphere left activists at the mercy of online platforms, in whose hands the decision solely rested on what content is permitted and what should be taken down. Now that the DSA is in force, will that change?
Digital Services Act to the rescue? A cautiously optimistic outlook
Following this harrowing retrospective, the audience was keen to hear from Dr. Julian Jaursch whether the DSA will be the silver bullet promised by the EU to rein in lawless online platforms. Julian’s outlook was cautiously optimistic. The introduction of an EU-wide rule book to regulate the digital Wild West is a positive step, however it isn’t entirely clear how it will benefit online civic space.
The DSA is broad in scope and focuses on companies that provide online services. One of its primary aims is to take some of the omnipotent power away from Very Large Online Platforms by giving users more control. For example, content moderation decisions must be explained and can be challenged by users. Another promising development is the requirement for platforms to conduct an impact assessment on how their site impacts civic discourse and the integrity of elections.
But will this create a safer online civic space for activists? According to Julian, it’s naive to expect a piece of tech regulation to work like a magic wand that exorcizes the internet of hate speech and disinformation. For starters, the DSA’s ambitious scope risks blunting its impact due to a lack of clarity, and its effectiveness hinges on how strongly it is enforced by member states. While the DSA has potential, it will be necessary for civil society organizations such as Liberties and SNV to monitor its application and, where necessary, propose measures to enhance its enforcement. Protecting activists online is key to enabling the work of civil society - it’s important we get it right!
Democracy Drinks is an informal networking event for civil society colleagues, which Liberties has been organizing in Berlin since 2019. Each month, we invite a special guest to discuss a pressing social issue affecting democracy. The events attract a lively mixture of people from NGOs, international institutions, think tanks, national governments and representations, academia, public affairs consultancies, social businesses and active citizens.
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Next month, Democracy Drinks will return to our usual location in Richie’s Bar & Café in Kreuzberg. With the weather getting chillier, we look forward to warming ourselves up with a beer and discussing the latest human rights developments.
Previous Democracy Drinks events: