Better protection needed against illegal online content

Team manager Riikka Rosendahl

European consumer authorities together with the European Commission have long been looking for a solution to the distress inflicted on consumers by online fraud, deceptive marketing, and other illegal content. A recommendation issued by the Commission in 2018 on measures to effectively tackle illegal content online was the first step to a new approach. Ways to improve the situation of consumers and to fight illegalities effectively are now being sought with an emphasis on the responsibility of platforms and online intermediary services operating on the web. The aim is also to empower consumers and improve their possibilities to influence actively.

Toward the end of 2020 the Commission released its proposal for an EU regulation on digital services. The goals of the new regulatory framework are ambitious, just as they should be. From the consumers’ point of view, it is important for the regulation of online activities to secure a high level of consumer protection. Also, the viewpoint of consumers needs to be considered. Online commerce and marketing are fast, uninterrupted, and constantly updated. Key players in this digital reality are platforms and online intermediary services which administer and facilitate the presentation of content and messages. At least the largest platforms have themselves understood that they have the best possibilities to fight the dissemination of illegal content.

Cooperation is needed to weed out illegalities

Under existing legislation consumer protection authorities can intervene in illegal marketing and inappropriate online commercial practices. Enforcement actions involve both national and international cooperation. EU consumer authorities have invoked coordinated actions to intervene in problematic issues of numerous platforms. During the coronavirus crisis, work against consumer scams is taking place extensively through the shared efforts of various authorities and businesses. The role of guarding the internet is nevertheless a heavy burden to bear. The interests of consumers require that the authorities have adequate resources to address other problems as well.

Fighting illegal online activities is an endless race: when one is caught, new ones occur immediately. In the digital world illegalities also tend to shift quickly to places where they can continue. By linking and sharing it is possible to spread online content to a wider audience, and not just a single place of publication. To be effective, new regulation needs to be sufficiently exhaustive. All actors in key positions on the internet need to be brought in, large as well as small platforms and online services.

Consumers: a driving force for change

The proposed regulation can improve the possibilities of consumers themselves to fight against illegal activities. Active participation by consumers is a driving force for change that is difficult for companies to ignore in a digital environment. Sharing good and bad experiences is one way of wielding influence on the internet. On the other hand, many platforms are already offering consumers the opportunity to report illegalities directly to those administrating the platform. A digital service regulation would bring uniform procedures to making and handling such notices.

While platforms have increased their own actions in removing unlawful content, there has been important discussion on their status as gatekeepers. In fighting unlawful content, the platforms possess power, which also needs to include responsibility. New regulation also includes the idea of what kinds of procedures could be used to appeal to a neutral party and seek the reversal of a decision to remove content. A balanced solution can be found for the advancement of both the economic security of consumers and freedom of expression.

Riikka Rosendahl

The writer works as a team manager at the Consumer Division of the Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority.

This article is part of the Consumer Ombudsman’s Newsletter 1/2021. The text was originally published in Finnish on 1 April 2021 on the blog of the Consumer Ombudsman