The European Commission is set to pursue a crackdown on the spread of online terrorist content and disinformation, its president Jean-Claude Junker announced in his state of the union address on Wednesday (12 September).
The commission’s proposal to regulate against online terrorist content includes a ‘one-hour’ rule for the removal of offending material as well as strong penalties for non-abiding service providers.
The one-hour rule sets a deadline for content to be removed following receipt of a removal order issued by national authorities, while fines worth 4% of global turnover for the last business year could be issued to liable service providers.
There will, however, be a mitigation procedure put in place that allows platforms the right to challenge a removal order. If such an appeal were successful, the content would be restored to the site.
“The Commission is today proposing new rules to get terrorist content off the web within one hour – the critical window in which the greatest damage is done,” Juncker told MEPs in Strasbourg.
“We need to be able to prosecute terrorists in a more coordinated way, across our Union. Terrorists know no borders. We cannot allow ourselves to become unwitting accomplices because of our inability to cooperate.”
The commission had announced plans in March to tackle the issue of online terrorist content. The proposals, however, were based on an advisory notice and only called for service providers to voluntarily remove liable content.
Juncker’s intention to now enshrine the rules in law signals the fact that there had been little cooperation from service providers and that he sees it necessary to step up plans to counter online terrorist content.
“The continued presence of terrorist content on the web is a grave risk to citizens and to society at large,” a statement from the Commission read.
“Its potential for causing harm is made worse by the speed with which it spreads across platforms. Several of the recent terrorist attacks in the EU have shown how terrorists misuse the internet to spread their messages.”
However, there have already been swathes of criticism against the plans, with the one-hour rule in particular in the crosshairs.
The Counter Extremism Project, a London-based NGO, has highlighted concerns about the fact that the rule is only applicable after the time in which a removal order is issued and not from the time that the offending content is uploaded.
“Reliable enforcement and automated technology so that content can be taken down within one hour of upload needs to be included in the proposed draft,” said David Ibsen, executive director of the organisation.
Meanwhile Maryant Fernández Pérez, a senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), highlighted the issues that could arise in respect of freedom of expression and privacy.
“Eight months away from the EU elections, it is regrettable that the Commission proposes new legislation with minimal regard for effectiveness or for fundamental rights, the pillars of our democracy,” she said.
Commission aims for a ‘fair, free and secure’ 2019 election
In the run-up to next May’s European elections, the Commission regards preserving the democratic integrity of the voting procedure a priority, in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year and reports of Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election.
“I want Europeans to be able to make their political choices next May in fair, secure and transparent European elections,” Juncker said.
“In our online world, the risk of interference and manipulation has never been so high. It is time to bring our election rules up to speed with the digital age to protect European democracy.”
The plans centre around a bid to make party political campaigns more transparent as well as countering the spread of disinformation during election campaigns and ensuring personal data is used in the context of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that came into force in May 2018.
A statement from the commission read:
“The online environment can make it easier for actors to present information while concealing its origin or purpose, including by not being transparent that a communication (such as a social media post) is a paid advertisement rather than factual reporting, presenting opinion as journalism, and selectively presenting reporting to inflame tensions or polarise debate.”
In addition to countering malign activity that attempts to influence an electorate’s voting intentions, the Commission also recommends that authorities in EU countries should adopt measures to manage the risks posed to the security of network and information systems, ahead of the elections.
“The integrity of elections can be seriously affected by “conventional” cyber incidents, including cyberattacks targeting electoral processes, campaigns, political party infrastructure, candidates or public authorities’ systems and by misuse of personal data,” the Commission said.
“This has highlighted the potential risks of certain online activities being used to target citizens covertly with political advertisements and communications, unlawfully processing and abusing their personal data to manipulate opinion, spread disinformation or simply undermine the truth when it suits political purposes or increases divisions.”
If, for example, a political group or foundation was to knowingly harvest personal data online for the cause of influencing the parliamentary elections, it may face a financial penalty of 5% of the annual budget of the party or political foundation.