A New Era for Platform Research: Data Access for Researchers under the Digital Services Act

On 31st May 2023, our Centre Member Naoise McNally, PhD Researcher at ML-Labs (SFI Centre for Research Training in Machine Learning) and the School of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin, authored a submission to a call for evidence by the European Commission relating to the Delegated Regulation on data access for researchers provided under Article 40 of the Digital Services Act.

A key provision within the transparency and accountability framework of the Digital Services Act, Article 40 provides researchers with mandate and mechanisms to access data held by Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs). Previously access to data has been severely limited and bounded by platforms, hindering research into risks and harms associated with online platforms such as bullying and harassment, polarisation, misinformation proliferation and criminal activity. Article 40 provides access to data for independent research by vetted researchers investigating questions relating to systemic risks associated with the platforms content, systems and processes.

The submission sets out a set of key issues and recommendations for consideration in drafting the delegated regulation. These recommendations include an expansive definition of ‘data’, spanning beyond content and user data to incorporate technical documentation and institutional knowledge from stakeholders. A standardised and accessible vetting process for research requests is advocated, accompanying a tiered data access model with progressive obligations dependent on the data required for research. Such an approach would offer a range of data access mechanisms, with increased requirements and responsibilities associated with more complex and sensitive data requests.

The submission calls for a coordinated, adaptive approach that is responsive to the dynamic tech landscape, with the the formation of an independent intermediary body to assist and support Digital Services Coordinators (DSCs) in implementing the provisions of Article 40. Such an approach must be supported by adequate funding and specialised staffing. Following an integrated approach encompassing the DSCs, intermediary body and the European Digital Board would be particularly beneficial for Ireland, given that the majority of Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Very Large Online Social Networks (VLOSEs) are headquartered in Ireland. Finally, the necessity of transparency and accountability is underlined, with a call for consistent reporting on access requests, established appeal procedures, and clear funding sources for the intermediary body.

UCD Centre for Digital Policy SUBMISSION TO CALL FOR EVIDENCE May 2023
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