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5. Vigilant and well-informed oversight of Big Tech platforms

Vigilant and well-informed public oversight in the Nordic countries effectively puts pressure on Big Tech platforms to ensure that their design and activities align with democratic values and comply with relevant regulation as these platforms have become an essential infrastructure for our public debate. Public oversight helps to build trust in technology and promotes a healthy and democratic digital ecosystem.

Recommendation 5A – Support access to platform data and algorithms for independent researchers

Open, transparent public debate and digital well-being in the Nordic region require a deep understanding of the information landscape and the factors that drive the spread of information. Furthermore, it requires an understanding of how this influences the well-being of Nordic citizens and the well-functioning of Nordic societies.
During the last five years, researchers’ access to platform data and algorithms has deteriorated. The amount of accessible data has decreased, and the labour needed to gain access to data has increased to a degree where neither the individual researchers, universities nor NGOs have the resources, competencies or personal network needed to achieve proper data access. Our democracies thus risk losing basic empirical insights into the user behaviour and working of the platforms upon which our digital democracies unfold.
While the Digital Services Act aims to address this problem by offering formal rights for researchers to request access to data from very large online platforms and search engines of systemic risks for society, we worry that some platforms might attempt to limit access to data-sharing solutions through bureaucratic processes and demands that few researchers will know how to navigate. Furthermore, researchers may need assistance to comply with the demands for data protection and confidentiality set out in the Digital Services Act to gain data access.
Consequently, we worry that formal rights of access will not provide the desired knowledge and insight without support.
We recommend that the Nordic countries work to ensure that no independent researcher with the intent to produce research for the good of society can be excluded from doing so. Accordingly, platforms’ terms of service should not prevent data access for researchers who comply with relevant regulation and scientific integrity, even if this involves the use of web scraping techniques.
We recommend that the Nordic countries establish an office to support Nordic actors' access to platform data by guiding researchers in their application processes and helping researchers comply with rules on data protection and confidentiality when carrying out their research. Additionally, the office should gather and distribute knowledge of what research applications other European researchers have been granted data access to with the purpose of creating transparency on data access and supporting the production of future research.
We recommend that the office should work on ensuring sustainable and sovereign data storage solutions where data access is administered and provided through an independent Nordic entity outside Big Tech (e.g., a collaboration between national Nordic statistical agencies
Møller, L. A., Walter, J. G., & Bechmann, A. (2020). Evaluating safe space solutions including data management and processing setups. Aarhus Universitet. Retrieved from Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis: https://www.disinfobservatory.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/SOMA_D2.1.pdf
Research access to the platforms is crucial for the well-being of our democracies, and accordingly a permanent organisation with this specific aim and with permanent staff is needed to sufficiently ensure that the Nordic societies gain the full advantage of the novel rights within the Digital Services Act. A collaboration among the Nordic countries will make any effort even more powerful as it will allow for more effective knowledge sharing and gathering of expertise.

Recommendation 5B – Commission a biennial report on the state of Nordic digital democracies

When the democratic debate unfolds online, the fate of democracy is put in the hands of privately owned online platforms. Any change in their algorithms, platform designs or moderation practices means an adjustment in the dynamics of democratic debates, often without any prior democratic discussion or even knowledge of the altered algorithms.
We recommend that the Nordic Council of Ministers for Culture commission a biennial report on the state of Nordic digital democracies that can inform public debates on strengthening our societies and democratic debates in the age of Big Tech. The report should provide a comprehensive picture of the current state of the Nordic digital democracies while also identifying potential risks and challenges for the future, including assessing the Nordic ecosystem and content moderation practices of very large online platforms.
We recommend, with inspiration from Reuters Digital News Report and as part of the commissioned report, creating a Nordic Tech-Democracy Index to systematically track developments in our digital democracy over time. Parameters may include digital civic and political participation, trust level and the level and spread of hate speech, misinformation and disinformation distributed across platforms and countries.