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When Does Transparency Cross the Line and Become More Burdensome Than Beneficial?

Today, when social media platforms play an instrumental role in shaping public discourse and influencing individual behaviors, the call for transparency has never been more pressing. The significance of transparency in this realm stretches across various dimensions, from fostering trust to promoting accountability, and its implications touch the very fabric of modern society. Even though it is frequently lauded as a quality that is universally beneficial, there are circumstances in which an excessive amount of transparency can become more of a burden than a benefit. This precarious equilibrium brings up important questions regarding the level and nature of transparency that should exist in the digital realm.

At its core, transparency establishes trust between social media platforms and their users. The digital space is rife with concerns about data privacy, content manipulation, and undisclosed algorithms that influence what users see and interact with. In an environment where users are increasingly wary of these unseen mechanisms, a transparent approach can assuage fears and uncertainties. When users have a clear understanding of how a platform operates, the kind of data it collects, how it uses that data, and the rationale behind its content algorithms, they are more inclined to view the platform as a trustworthy entity. This trust is paramount, for it forms the foundation of any healthy online community. When users believe in the integrity of a platform, they engage more authentically, leading to richer interactions and a more vibrant digital ecosystem.

Beyond building trust, transparency serves as a bulwark against the rampant spread of misinformation. The digital landscape, particularly social media, has been criticized for its role in amplifying false narratives and deepening societal divisions. When platforms are open and transparent about how they curate and prioritize content, users gain a better understanding of the information they encounter. This clarity can help in reducing the spread of false narratives by allowing informed discussions to emerge, where users can discern the reliability of information sources. By being transparent about their operations, platforms can empower users to critically evaluate content, thus playing a proactive role in countering misinformation.

Regulation (EU) 2022/2065, commonly referred to as the Digital Services Act (DSA) introduced a lot of different transparency rules for online platforms. Transparency, in the context of the DSA, primarily revolves around the operations of digital platforms and how they handle various challenges, including content moderation, data privacy, and advertisement placements. The DSA mandates that these platforms offer clear insights into their decision-making processes, algorithmic mechanisms, and data usage practices.

For instance, when it comes to content moderation, the DSA emphasizes that platforms should be transparent about their content removal or filtering mechanisms. This includes providing clear rationales for taking down content, offering users an understanding of how moderation tools or algorithms work, and ensuring that users are informed promptly when their content is affected. By doing so, the DSA aims to ensure that users have a clear understanding of their rights and the rules they are expected to follow, while also offering them avenues for redress if they believe their content has been unjustly removed or restricted.

According to Article 17 of the DSA hosting service providers are required to provide detailed and explicit justifications to recipients who are affected by the removal or restriction of information that was originally provided by them. In essence, it is imperative for hosting service providers to effectively communicate with their users regarding the content moderation measures they undertake, while also providing comprehensive justifications for such decisions. In order to promote transparency and facilitate the examination of content moderation decisions made by online platform providers, as well as to monitor the dissemination of illicit and detrimental content on the internet, the DSA Transparency Database compiles the justifications provided by online platform providers to the Commission, as mandated by Article 24(5) of the DSA.

The database, which is under the management of the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology of the Commission, is openly accessible to the public. Online platform providers promptly submit automated statements of reasons to ensure the database is continuously updated in near real-time. The website provides a range of methods for accessing and analyzing statements of reasons, such as search capabilities and the option to download data. The website also includes a collection of summary statistics and aggregate visualizations within a preliminary version of an analytics interface. This interface is expected to undergo revisions and updates in subsequent releases of the database. The database does not store any personally identifiable information. The legal responsibility lies with online platform providers to ensure that the information they submit does not include any personal data.

Even though the primary goal of transparency is to foster trust between parties, it may at times result in an overwhelming amount of information being made available. Users of online platforms may be inundated with an excessive amount of information, terms of service, data usage policies, and algorithmic details in an effort on the part of online platforms to appear transparent. Sorting through this deluge of information can be difficult for the average user because there is so much of it. Instead of feeling informed, users may feel overwhelmed, which can lead to the paradoxical effect of them ignoring important information or becoming apathetic toward platform policies.

Another aspect that should be taken into consideration is the possibility that transparent information will be used inappropriately. For instance, if an online platform is excessively open about the security protocols and infrastructure it employs, it may inadvertently provide a road map for individuals who intend to cause harm. It is possible for cybercriminals to take advantage of this transparency in order to find vulnerabilities, which could then lead to data breaches, disruptions in service, or other forms of cyberattacks. When considered in this light, transparency poses a significant risk to both the safety and the credibility of the platform.

It is also possible for transparency to stifle innovation. Online platforms, particularly those operating in highly competitive industries, frequently rely on proprietary algorithms, features, or business strategies in order to keep their competitive advantage. A competitive advantage can be lost if an excessive amount of information about these one-of-a-kind aspects is disclosed. Because competitors can easily imitate a digital product’s features, strategies, or algorithms, the digital landscape is becoming increasingly homogenous, making differentiation more difficult. In addition, the persistent scrutiny that accompanies high levels of transparency may cause platforms to be hesitant to experiment with novel features or methods out of fear that users will react negatively or misinterpret their intentions.

Transparency in social media platforms is not a mere accessory; it’s a fundamental requirement in today’s interconnected world. As these platforms continue to wield immense power over public opinion, personal behaviors, and societal norms, their commitment to transparency will dictate the health and integrity of the digital space. By embracing transparency, social media platforms can ensure that they remain trusted entities, champions of truth, guardians of individual privacy, and accountable stakeholders in the vast digital ecosystem. Despite the fact that it is incontestably true that transparency is an undeniably crucial component in the world of online platforms, it is not a solution that can be applied universally. Platforms have a delicate balancing act to perform, as they are tasked with weighing the benefits of transparency against the potential drawbacks associated with it. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, platforms will need to determine when transparency enriches the user experience and trust, and when it might become an inadvertent burden, further complicating the very issues that it seeks to address.

János Tamás Papp JD, PhD is an assistant professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary, and a legal expert at the Department of Online Platforms of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary. He has taught civil and constitutional law since 2015 and became a founding member of the Media Law Research Group of the Department of Private Law. He earned his JD and PhD in Law at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. His main research fields are freedom of speech, media law, and issues related to freedom of expression on online platforms. He has a number of publications regarding social media and the law, including a book titled „Regulation of Social Media Platforms in Protection of Democratic Discourses”.

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