Q&A: Ireland’s Digital Services Coordinator On 100 Days of the DSA

Gabby Miller / May 29, 2024

This piece is part of a series that marks the first 100 days since the full implementation of Europe's Digital Services Act. You can read more items in the series here.

John Evans joined Coimisiún na Meán in July 2023 as Digital Services Commissioner. Source

Since the Digital Services Act entered into full effect on Feb. 17, 2024, the European Commission has attracted much attention for the steady stream of investigations it’s launched – at times aggressively – into designated Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Search Engines (VLOSEs), such as TikTok, Meta, and others. Lesser known, though, are the goings-on within EU member states that have quietly been assembling the teams tasked with application and enforcement of the DSA within their respective borders.

These teams, each headed by a Digital Services Coordinator (DSC), are appointed by a member states’ designated regulator and are key for platform accountability in the image of the DSA. While operating more behind the scenes, the DSCs work at both a national and European level to prepare platforms for things like election readiness – the EU elections will be held June 6 through 9 – or issue guidance on how to mitigate mis- and dis-information.

Now, 100 days into the DSA’s implementation, Tech Policy Press checked in with Ireland’s Digital Services Coordinator, John Evans, to get a sense of the early scaffolding work member states are contributing as the larger DSA infrastructure is being mapped out. As one of the first DSCs appointed across all 27 EU member states, Evans has since hired a team of roughly 80 dedicated staffers, and gotten straight to work issuing guidance on issues such as the protection of minors. Ireland’s newly-formed media regulator, Coimisiún na Meán, just this week issued its final draft Online Safety Code, which will obligate platforms to protect their users from harmful content and use age assurance to prevent minors from accessing certain graphic and violent content, among other requirements.

Below is a lightly edited interview with Evans where we discuss topics ranging from the nature of communications between Coimisiún na Meán and the platforms it is probing to the national approach Ireland is taking to DSA enforcement.

Gabby Miller: Can you just start off by telling me exactly what a digital service coordinator is and what they do?

John Evans: So as a Digital Services Coordinator, I'm one of 27 competent authorities in each member state who has responsibility for coordinating other interested agencies that have a stake in the application of the DSA. The scope of the DSA is so broad and really overlaps with quite a few other organizations, like competition authorities, consumer protection agencies, electoral commissions, data protection agencies, and so on.

Miller: So Ireland was really early in appointing its DSC, you all seem really ahead compared to some of your EU counterparts, some of whom don't even have one appointed yet. So what was Ireland's rationale for getting right to work, and what did the early days of setting that up look like?

Evans: It's one of the planks of the government’s digital strategy to have professional, modern, well-resourced regulators in the digital space and we're part of that. That's why they made the commitment to be up and running from day one. They've also been quite good in terms of going to bat for us on getting resources. So we started off with 40 [staff members] in the organization just last March, and we're up to over 130 now. And we'll be at about 200 by the end of the year. Now, they're not all doing DSA work. We have an online safety framework, we are also responsible for terrorist content online, but the DSA is certainly a major plank of that. The other half of the organization does broadcasting work. So there's definitely synergies in terms of our approach, for example, to elections or to mis- and disinformation. I would say there are about 80 people dedicated to DSC work.

Miller: Is that in all of the EU or just in Ireland?

Evans: Just in our agency.

Miller: What does the day-to-day look like for those 80 people and for you, in terms of the actual job?

Evans: So obviously a certain amount of people are involved in the corporate spine–we've got legal people, data people, we're developing a kind of data and technology function. But then there are people who are on the coalface in talking to the platforms. One of the divisions that I have responsibility for is the Platform Supervision and Investigations Division. They have six teams in our division, six total directors, four of those are supervising directors. And we've divided the Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Search Engines (VLOSEs), and then categorized below-threshold platforms between four groups, and they are already kind of our day-to-day contact for the platforms.

For example, over the last three months, we've been reviewing their risk assessments, we've been sending them requests for information, we've been trying to focus in on a few thematic areas, elections being a big one, minor protection being another one, but also terrorism and hate speech. Fraud and scams is one we're working on; we're a little bit behind where we are with some of the other thematic areas, but it's something that's coming through in our contact centers, issues around that and account hacking, sextortion, as issues for people on platforms. So fraud has become our fifth priority if you like.

I stood up another area, the User Support Division, and they are even more on the front line in the sense that they are our contact with the public. That division manages the contact center, it triages contacts and complaints, and it's also dealing with user education. So that team would have been very involved, for example, in helping us develop a packet of information for election candidates here. I said one of our focuses is on electoral integrity, we have elections going on here–European elections, local elections, a general election later in the year. So this is an important area for us.

I don't have responsibility for the policy division, but they are kind of the other side of the coin for the operation of our online safety framework, which includes the Digital Services Act. They’re actually the team who developed the deeper expertise in areas like electoral integrity, plurality, hate speech, proliferation of illegal content, online minor protection. Those are the people we've hired from a variety of backgrounds, from academia and NGOs, from other regulators who have these kinds of deep specialties. They, in a way, are for my enforcement and supervision people. We check in on them, we try to involve them in our dealings with the platforms, but they're sort of the deep experts.

Miller: I wanted to talk about your relationship to the different VLOPs so far. How open is that channel of communication, how cooperative have they been? Also, how have the formal inquiries that the European Commission has opened into some of them affected your relationship? Because at times, you've seen European Commissioner Thierry Breton come out quite aggressively against some of them.

Evans: I can honestly say, right from day one, the platforms were making themselves available, they were reaching out to us to engage as much as possible. It's true that the Commission's enforcement activity, and even our own probing around their risk assessments–trying to understand, for example, their election readiness–that does change the dynamics somewhat. Where it settles in the future depends on how the next year goes I think. We are pursuing this model of supervision, and then enforcement when that's necessary. Sometimes it's quite easy to say that you're getting engagement, but it's not necessarily the same as compliance. So that's something we need to be aware of, right?

Miller: Can you expand on that?

Evans: When you're talking to a platform and you have concerns about, for example, their notice and action mechanism and how that works, you don't necessarily need to be talking to the policy people all the time, you need to be talking to the trust and safety people. It's the trust and safety people who really know the inside of this. Now, we've made a point of this here. Coimisiún na Meán are hiring from the sector. All of our supervision directors have come from platform backgrounds, so we have quite a bit of expertise ourselves. But I would say that dynamic in the relationship of engaging with the public affairs people and moving to the people who know the compliance and the trust and safety infrastructures closely, that takes a bit of time to push through.

Miller: You've brought up elections twice. In terms of election readiness, where do you think the VLOPs are in this regard?

Evans: I think this is actually a fantastic example of how the DSA works. It has 27 or so DSCs on the European Commission working together on both a national basis and a European basis, to ensure that the platforms are ready for elections in the member states. Because obviously, the European elections, while they are European, the issues that arise locally are local issues. So you need the DSCs locally to have their ear on the ground. The European Commission published guidance back at the end of March, and the idea is that DSCs would play a role in their member states in ensuring that people are aware of those guidelines and that they're effective. The European Commission has also been doing stress tests with platforms. So about three weeks ago, all DSCs, a good number of NGOs with a stake and interest in this kind of issue, and the platforms themselves were involved in wargaming some potential issues that might arise in elections. For example, the emergence of a deepfake that references some politician, foreign interference, and so on. So there's been quite a focus, not just in Ireland, but at the European level, on readiness by the platforms for elections.

Miller: How have things changed since the GDPR? What lessons do you think Ireland's media regulators have learned from that time period and are really trying to carry into DSA enforcement?

Evans: Obviously, the DSA model is a different model. So it's a mixed model of supervision and enforcement. We're kind of a complex enough arrangement between the EU and the DSCs of establishment and the DSCs in the countries of destination. How the digital services board pans out, which will be key to ensuring how this works properly, is still to be determined. We're having our fourth meeting of that group next week and the signs are very encouraging. The Commission seems keen to be playing, while in a lead role, as a team player. So we’re setting up things like working groups. We already have a working group on elections, and we'll be setting other ones up on protection of minors, which is a huge priority for Coimisiún na Meán and for a lot of other regulators across Europe. And I think once the dust really settles on the elections, it's a protection of minors issue, that's going to be a big one.

Miller: Regarding child online safety, I don't have a great question to ask you on it because I don't know how Coimisiún na Meán is approaching it.

Evans: So could I just stop you there? Somebody asked me a question about this yesterday and I said, ‘it's probably the absolutely worst time to ask me a question about how exactly we're approaching online safety for minors at the moment.’ Next Monday, we'll be going public with a sort of final draft Online Safety Code. (The draft Code was issued on Monday, May 27, shortly after Tech Policy Press interviewed Evans.)

Miller: Are there any last thoughts that you want to get across as a DSC in general, or specific to Ireland? What are your goals?

Evans: Maybe just one. So there are 23 VLOPs, 13 of them are based in Dublin. So we see ourselves as a DSC with a huge amount of responsibility. The government has backed us in terms of getting the legislation ready on time and providing the resources. So it's now time to put those resources into action and change platform behavior. What we really want to do is deliver public value as quickly as possible.

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Gabby Miller
Gabby Miller is a staff writer at Tech Policy Press. She was previously a senior reporting fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, where she used investigative techniques to uncover the ways Big Tech companies invested in the news industry to advance their own policy interests. She’s an alu...