Ukraine War Prompts Europe’s New Emergency Rules for the Internet

“We have seen how important a role the platforms have [had] in Ukraine. So if there is some kind of crisis, we need to have some tools because we don’t have any legislation for that,” says Virkkunen. “There could be some other kind of a crisis where we don’t have sanctions.”

However, critics of the crisis mechanism are concerned that it concentrates too much power in the hands of the European Commission. Facebook should not be making important decisions about the global information space alone, says Jan Penfrat, senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based digital rights group EDRi, “but at the same time, we don’t want the European executive, which is a very political body under a lot of pressure from member states, especially in crisis situations, to be the sole institution to decide this either.”

Although European lawmakers have reached a political agreement on the digital services act, the regulation’s language and technical details have yet to be finalized, and there is still uncertainty about what powers the Commission will have over tech platforms in times of crisis.

The text agreed to in Friday’s negotiations suggests the Commission could recommend changes to Facebook or TikTok’s terms of service and to the way platforms moderate or rank content. It could also force platforms to put government-approved information at the top of search results, says Penfrat.

Facebook, Amazon, and TikTok declined to comment on the new rules. Google did not reply to a request to comment. “Our main issue with the crisis mechanism was from the onset that it would give extensive powers to the European Commission without appropriate checks and balances,” says Romain Digneaux, policy officer at Dot Europe, a lobbying group that counts Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Amazon among its members. Digneaux added that the measure’s late introduction made it very difficult to debate.

Wikipedia was also concerned that the crisis mechanism would force the platform to interfere with content decisions that are usually made by the website’s community, according to Jan Gerlach, public policy director at Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s nonprofit parent organization.

For others, the crisis mechanism feels too broad. “What the Commission can require the platforms to do is not set out specifically, so it can be very far-reaching,” says German MEP Patrick Breyer, from the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance. “The definition of an emergency is really wide,” he adds.

For the crisis mechanism to take effect, it first has to be triggered by a new board of representatives from each member state. It also includes a sunset clause, which means the Commission’s emergency powers over technology platforms automatically expire after three months. 

“All measures under the crisis mechanism will be limited in time and accompanied by safeguards for fundamental rights,” says Johannes Bahrke, the European Commission’s coordinating spokesperson for digital economy research and innovation, adding that the Commission will only be able to extend the three-month period upon recommendation by the board, and any use of the crisis mechanism will be made public.

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