EU urged to make profiling-based content feeds off by default, as big tech’s ‘personalization’ stirs controversy

In the European Union, tensions are rising around the regulation of Big Tech’s content recommender systems. A number of parliamentarians are calling on the Commission to rein in the profiling-based content feeds that power “personalized” engines on mainstream platforms. These systems process user data to determine what content to show them. Critics have long raised concerns about the potential harms of these systems, including driving social media addiction, posing mental health risks, and undermining social cohesion by amplifying divisive and polarizing content.

A letter signed by 17 MEPs from various political groups advocates for tech platforms’ recommender systems to be switched off by default. While the EU Digital Services Act mandates transparency measures for recommender systems and requires larger platforms to provide at least one non-profiling-based content feed, the MEPs are pushing for a blanket default off for the technology. They argue that interaction-based recommender systems pose a severe threat to citizens and society as they prioritize emotive and extreme content, targeting individuals likely to be provoked. The MEPs cite Amnesty’s experiment on TikTok revealing exposure to dangerous content and Meta’s internal research indicating a significant percentage of extremist group joins result from their recommendation tools.

The European Parliament has also published a report highlighting the detrimental impact of recommender systems on online services that engage in profiling individuals. The MEPs call upon the European Commission to take swift and decisive action to ensure a safe digital environment, recommending the measure to turn off personalized feeds by default as a mitigation measure.

While the Commission has clear obligations on VLOPs’ recommender systems under the Digital Services Act, it declined public comment on the MEPs’ letter and the ICCL’s report. However, an EU official suggested that platforms could choose to turn off profiling-based recommender systems by default as part of their DSA systemic risk mitigation compliance. The official confirmed that the Commission is looking into recommender systems in its capacity as an enforcer of the DSA and has the power to force larger platforms to turn off personalized feeds by default. However, they emphasized the need for nuance and case-by-case assessments of concerns, arguing for data-driven policy interventions on VLOPs.

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