EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová has delivered a stark message to member states ahead of the European elections in 2019, warning on Tuesday (6 November) that “the risk of interference and manipulation has never been so high.”
Jourová was speaking at the 2018 Lisbon Web Summit, where she presented results of the latest Eurobarometer survey on democracy. Standout figures from the research show that 81% are in favour of increased transparency for advertising on social networks, while 80% support making clear the amounts of money platforms receive from political parties.
More than two thirds (67%) are concerned that the personal data harvested from the internet could be used for targeted political advertising.
The research was conducted during September of this year and consisted of face-to-face interviews with nearly 30,000 citizens from across the EU.
“For too long we have seen big tech business as purely good or neutral that cannot be held responsible for any consequences it may cause,” Jourova said. “The big question is what role tech should play in our society.”
She added that the Cambridge Analytica scandal had sent “shockwaves through our democratic systems” and that this should “ring alarm bells” now that there are less than 200 days until the European elections.
EURACTIV recently sat down with a Russian journalist, Lyudmila Savchuk, who went undercover during 2015 at St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), otherwise known as the ‘troll factory.’
The purpose of the IRA, Savchuk said, was to create swathes of content intended to influence voters in Europe and the US.
“I don’t have any doubt that there will be threats to next year’s European elections,” she said.
A Hippocratic Oath for the digital age?
The risk to the integrity of the European elections by malpractice has been a topic hotly debated by European regulators lately.
The European Commission announced recently a code of practice on disinformation that tech platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Google have said they will abide by. The code includes measures such as tackling fake accounts and online bots and disrupting advertising revenues from companies that spread disinformation.
In October, Security Commissioner Julian King told a high-level conference on disinformation in the context of next year’s European elections that the EU “needs to go much further, much faster” in countering the threat of fake news.
Moreover, the European Data Protection Supervisor’s (EDPS) conference on ethics took place at the European Parliament towards the end of October, in which the subject of how to construct a foundational set of standards for the digital sector was discussed widely.
Before opening the event, EDPS chief Giovanni Buttarelli drew attention to the possibility of constructing a ‘Hippocratic Oath” for the digital age, an idea backed by Jourová on Tuesday.
“I have heard about the idea of creating a Hippocratic Oath for tech designers. The first rule will be: Do no harm and put the wellbeing of the people first. I like that idea,” she said.
While the platforms themselves are currently facing the brunt of criticism from the European Commission, web architects and software writers who construct the formulas on which digital interfaces operate are escaping direct accountability.
If Jourová’s words are anything to go by, that could be set to change.
“An architect needs to respect and comply with the building code and a number of safety legislations,” she said.
“For the digital world, we should think of a similar system, a mix of ethical, legal and societal norms that would ensure continuing trust in the greatest revolution of our lifetimes.”