How platforms govern users’ copyright-protected content: exploring the power of private ordering and its implications

João Pedro Quintais*, Giovanni de Gregorio, João C. Magalhães

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Online platforms provide primary points of access to information and other content in the digital age. They foster users’ ability to share ideas and opinions while offering opportunities for cultural and creative industries. In Europe, ownership and use of such expressions is partly governed by a complex web of legislation, sectoral self- and co-regulatory norms. To an important degree, it is also governed by private norms defined by contractual agreements and informal relationships between users and platforms. By adopting policies usually defined as Terms of Service and Community Guidelines, platforms almost unilaterally set use, moderation and enforcement rules, structures and practices (including through algorithmic systems) that govern the access and dissemination of protected content by their users. This private governance of essential means of access, dissemination and expression to (and through) creative content is hardly equitable, though. In fact, it is an expression of how platforms control what users – including users-creators – can say and disseminate online, and how they can monetise their content. As platform power grows, EU law is adjusting by moving towards enhancing the responsibility of platforms for content they host. One crucial example of this is Article 17 of the new Copyright Directive (2019/790), which fundamentally changes the regime and liability of “online content-sharing service providers” (OCSSPs). This complex regime, complemented by rules in the Digital Services Act, sets out a new environment for OCSSPs to design and carry out content moderation, as well as to define their contractual relationship with users, including creators. The latter relationship is characterized by significant power imbalance in favour of platforms, calling into question whether the law can and should do more to protect users-creators. This article addresses the power of large-scale platforms in EU law over their users’ copyright-protected content and its effects on the governance of that content, including on its exploitation and some of its implications for freedom of expression. Our analysis combines legal and empirical methods. We carry our doctrinal legal research to clarify the complex legal regime that governs platforms’ contractual obligations to users and content moderation activities, including the space available for private ordering, with a focus on EU law. From the empirical perspective, we conducted a thematic analysis of most versions of the Terms of Services published over time by the three largest social media platforms in number of users – Facebook, Instagram and YouTube – so as to identify and examine the rules these companies have established to regulate user-generated content, and the ways in which such provisions shifted in the past two decades. In so doing, we unveil how foundational this sort of regulation has always been to platforms’ functioning and how it contributes to defining a system of content exploitation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105792
JournalComputer Law and Security Review
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023


  • CDSM directive
  • Content moderation
  • Copyright
  • Creators
  • Digital services act
  • Online content-sharing platforms
  • Online platforms
  • Platform regulation
  • Private ordering
  • Terms of service


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