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NGOs urge EU Commission to include porn websites in the ‘systemic risk’ club

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Several civil society organisations have urged the European Commission to designate major porn websites as “very large online platforms” that have to follow a strict regime under the Digital Services Act (DSA), according to a letter seen by Euractiv.

The DSA aims to clarify the assignment of responsibility for actors operating online, including how to deal with illegal content, like dangerous goods, and harmful but legal content, like hate speech.

For the DSA, online platforms with more than 45 million users monthly in the European Union entail a ‘systemic risk’ for society; hence they must follow a specific regime, including transparency and risk management obligations.

In April, the European Commission announced the first batch of very large online platforms, including social media like Instagram and TikTok, search engines like Google Search and Bing, and retailers like AliExpress and Zalando.

However, conspicuously absent from the list of ‘systemic risk’ platforms were porn websites, some of the most popular platforms in the world.

The European Commission is expected to release a second batch of systemic platforms before the end of the year, but the first batch has already heralded trouble for the EU executive, with Zalando and Amazon contesting the designation.

In this context, NGOs have a clear message for the Commission: Do not forget about porn websites again.

While online platforms had until February to publish the data on the user base in the EU, most porn sites did not meet the deadline, including Xvideos, which ranks among the most visited websites in the world.

Last week, however, Xvideos admitted that every month they have more than 160 million users in the EU.

This figure would not only put it way above the threshold but would also cast significant doubts on the figures reported by its main rivals, Pornhub and XHamster, which both declared 33 million monthly users. Another popular site, YouPorn, declared just seven million visitors every month.

For civil society organisations, these figures are hard to believe.

A coalition of 30 NGOs including AccessNow, Center for Democracy and Technology, European Digital Rights, and the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance have penned a letter to the Commission stating that several platforms’ figures are “surprisingly small numbers that have allowed them to temporarily elude the designation as VLOPs”.

The organisations believe that the numbers “seem to be a misinterpretation” and indicate that “these platforms are actively attempting to dodge their responsibilities and not be held accountable for the systemic risks existing on their platforms.”

AccessNow also said in May that, compared to the reported 33 million monthly users by Pornhub, “in March 2023 alone, [the] global website visits reached 2.5 billion” and, therefore, this number “seems unlikely”.

The letter calls on the Commission to designate all systemic platforms that meet the threshold, hold them by the same standards, and be more transparent and open to consultation with stakeholders in the next round of designation.

Alessandro Polidoro, the lawyer who coordinated the open letter, told Euractiv that the initiative’s goal is to “show to the European Commission that in the upcoming round of designations for very large online platforms, they cannot leave these platforms out of the picture”.

He explained that while there are issues present on these platforms such as image-based sexual abuse or deepfake, all systemic risks must be assessed without stigmatising the users or sex workers involved.

Euractiv contacted XHamster, Pornhub, and Youporn for comments but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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