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24th Jul 2021

EU tells platforms to sort fake news by October or face new law

  • Online platforms will have to produce results by October (Photo: rawpixel.com)

The European Commission is demanding online platforms and social networks crack down on fake news by October - or face the threat of regulation being imposed at a later date.

The commission on Thursday (26 April) rolled out a series of measures it hopes will weed out what it broadly describes as 'disinformation', ahead of the upcoming European elections in 2019.

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The plans include an EU-wide Code of Practice on Disinformation, which must produce "measurable effects" by October.

"Between now and July, we would like them [online platforms] to reach agreement among themselves on a code of conduct of best practice against disinformation," digital economy commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, told reporters.

She said the commission will be monitoring the progress and "if necessary, we will decide in December whether we will consider it advisable to adopt additional measures."

It means online platforms will have to cut advertising revenue streams for anyone who spreads fake news and restrict targeting options for political advertising.

It also requires, among other things, for platforms to provide access to more reliable information, increase transparency of sponsored content when it relates to elections, and include safeguards against disinformation.

The commission wants a European network of fact-checkers to monitor progress. It is not yet clear who will be part of this network of trusted flaggers.

"We are not going to interfere in anyway in their daily work," noted Gabriel.

The network will be supported by an European online platform on disinformation, which will offer things like cross-border data collection and analysis tools.

Similar schemes launched by the EU's external action service, also known as East StratComm Task Force to tackle Russian disinformation, have recently generated backlash in the Netherlands.

But security commissioner Julian King, who presented the plans alongside Gabriel, described disinformation as a threat to society and democratic institutions.

"When such manipulation is attempted by outside, from foreign actors, it can have serious potential consequences for our security," he said, noting information warfare is part of the Russian military doctrine.

The commission defines disinformation as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented, and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.

"It is not targetting partisan journalism," noted King.

The commission's plan also seeks to support what it describes as quality journalism, by launching a call sometime this year to produce and disseminate "quality news content on EU affairs through data-driven news media."

It also wants to improve media literacy of online users by launching a "European Week of Media Literacy".

Free speech limit tested

But not everyone is happy, noting that such efforts risk imposing limits on free speech and privacy.

Maryant Fernandez Perez, a senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), a Brussels-based NGO, in a statement said more evidence is needed to back up the commission's plans.

"For the moment, we have different initiatives from the European commission that do not even agree on how to define the problem being addressed," she said.

The Civil Liberties Union for Europe, another NGO, says more research is needed before imposing EU-level plans on tackling fake news because free speech could be at risk.

Giovanni Buttarelli, the EU's data protection supervisor, has made similar observations, noting that the problem is also partly rooted in the "irresponsible, illegal or unethical use of personal information."

In an opinion on online manipulation out earlier this year, he pointed out solutions tend to focus on transparency while neglecting accountability of those behind fake news.

Buttarelli said the crisis is instead one that depends on privacy and free expression, noting that government and company surveillance has led to a chilling effect on people's ability to express themselves freely.

"The problem is real and urgent, and is likely to get worse as more people and things connect to the internet and the role of Artificial Intelligence systems increases," he said.

Thursday's announcement also follows a separate meeting between the EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova and member state national election commissions earlier this week, where they discussed "emerging challenges related to the role of social media in the electoral process."

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