Platform Researcher Access Tools & The Brussels EffectAnna Lenhart / Oct 31, 2023
Anna Lenhart is a Policy Fellow at the Institute for Data Democracy and Politics at The George Washington University. Prior to that she served as a Technology Policy Advisor in the US House of Representatives.
X (formerly Twitter) sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate for “improperly” accessing data. Meta is planning to shut down Crowdtangle. TikTok’s Researcher API is lackluster. For those paying attention to AI auditing and internet research in the US, this series of discouraging headlines has led to a sense of desperation. Fortunately, in recent months, this desperation has often been followed by a few hopeful murmurs: “...what about Europe?”
As Europe moves forward with the Digital Services Act and the Code of Practice on Disinformation, platforms are starting to announce new tools and programs for researchers along with changes and updates to existing programs. Google recently released an application for records requests, and Meta is inviting researchers to apply for their Content Library API.
What remains unclear is how these announcements will impact US research and researchers globally. Europe is traditionally ahead of the US on policies regarding consumer protection, which often leads to a "Brussels Effect," or a phenomenon in which companies make changes to comply with EU law and extend those changes to consumers around the world. The challenge with transparency mandates is that they do not necessitate a change to the underlying products–we can’t assume the disclosure tools platforms are deploying will have global reach.
To track the impact of Europe’s policy on non-European internet research, the team at the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University is launching a Platform Researcher Access Tools & The Brussels Effect Tracker to understand what changes platforms are making regarding researcher access and the global reach of those changes.
How can this tracker help researchers and civil society?
First, to the extent new programs or features are becoming available outside of Europe, including the United States, it’s worth assessing the data they include, limitations on access, and, most importantly, if these tools facilitate meaningful research while respecting data subjects. Keeping a big-picture view on the quality and security of these tools will require collaboration and a centralized place to track feature updates and rigorous assessments published by researchers and civil society. Second, if and when a feature or tool is only available in Europe, a deeper understanding of these geographical differences can open doors to more fruitful negotiations for voluntary access.
Unfortunately, in the near future, the US will not likely mandate researcher access to social media data, as bills like the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act are stalled this Congress. State efforts to mandate transparency are being held up in the courts. For now, cooperation with platforms is the research community’s path forward, but Europe’s actions may also help to undercut many of the platforms’ arguments for not providing data to researchers. For example, consider one of the platform’s excuses: “from a technical and engineering standpoint it is too challenging to provide this data.” The tracker will allow advocates to respond by pointing out that platforms have overcome such technical hurdles in Europe.
In addition, researchers and civil society will be able to engage with platforms around more pointed questions aimed at understanding legal or technical barriers that may exist and make it challenging to extend researcher access programs to other countries. This insight can inform more tailored advocacy campaigns. Additionally, as platforms set up new programs and “vetting” procedures, we have an opportunity to lean into Europe’s culture of data protection and ask how we keep research independent while incorporating ethics guidelines such as those issued by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) to better protect individual privacy and communities from harm.
While headlines regarding internet research in the United States seem dire, a thoughtful eye on Europe may lead to a better research ecosystem for everyone. We hope the Tech Policy Press community will bookmark the tracker and help us learn more about the effectiveness of the next wave of researcher access tools.