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France taps tech researchers to police social media

PARIS — France’s digital regulator is putting in place a system to give technology researchers broad access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and other platforms, in an effort to fight abuse, discrimination and misinformation online.

The country’s digital and audiovisual media regulator Arcom on Wednesday launched a public consultation asking researchers, NGOs and tech giants how they want to share data to fight online malice.

The government plans to build a network of researchers in the EU and other countries who would be tasked with scrutinizing the platforms’ decisions and flag potential breaches — effectively outsourcing some of the policing required to enforce the EU’s new content moderation rulebook.

“If states try to be as powerful as Google or Facebook, that’s the Russian way, that’s the Chinese way. You cannot make it work in a democratic way,” Arcom council member Benoît Loutrel said. “But we can be as powerful as [social media giants] if we act on a European network basis.”

The initiative preempts legal requirements that platforms will face under the Digital Services Act (DSA) before it comes into effect later this year. The DSA’s final agreement, obtained by POLITICO earlier, still needs formal approval but stated that regulators must take into account the “rights and interests” of platforms when forcing them to give researchers access. That means platforms can invoke data protection issues, trade secrets and security as reasons to box out external scrutiny.

The French consultation could challenge platforms on their arguments to keep the black boxes of decision-making closed.

Loutrel cited Twitter as “the only platform which has voluntarily set up some access” through its application programming interfaces (APIs), which allow external groups to hook up technical systems to Twitter’s data flows.

Data policy researcher Alex Engler said the provision in the EU’s new law would be “a relatively small change for Twitter,” but would “require an enormous lift” from Facebook.

The French plan is meant as a pioneering scheme that’ll work out the power balance between tech giants and researchers keen to dive in and scrutinize them, Loutrel said. Wednesday’s consultation will help clarify the system “to start actual access to the data as soon as the DSA is effective in late 2022 or early 2023,” he added.

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