EU code of practice on disinformation ‘insufficient and unsuitable,’ member states say

[EPA-EFE/RITCHIE B. TONGO]

A coalition of EU member states have hit out at the bloc’s efforts to stem the spread of disinformation, calling the self-regulatory framework currently in place “insufficient and unsuitable.”

The position paper, signed by Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, comes ahead of an announcement by the European Commission on 10 June on how they will seek to stamp out the threat of disinformation in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The experiences of recent months, as well as the results of the recently published independent assessments of the Code (which find partial success, at best), make it obvious that it is insufficient and unsuitable to serve as the basis for sustainably addressing disinformation on social platforms,” the document, seen by EURACTIV, says.

The code of practice against disinformation was introduced by the Commission in October 2018, in a bid to combat fake news in the context of the May 2019 European Parliament elections.

Despite the criticism from EU member states, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, praised the code earlier this week in its capacity to implore platforms giants to take a more proactive approach on the moderation of disinformation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I welcome those quick measures taken by the platforms. I support the approach that focuses on facilitating access to authoritative sources, tackling harmful content and systematic take down of exploitative or misleading ads while at the same time preserving the freedom of expression and information,” Jourová said at an online event hosted by Renew Europe on Thursday (4 June).

“These quick measures were possible because in Europe we have not started from scratch. Thanks to the code of practice on disinformation, both platforms and authorities have developed tools that could be quickly deployed in this crisis,” she added.

Nevertheless, a recent study on the code of practice, commissioned by the executive, hit out at the self-regulatory nature of the framework, suggesting that “sanctions and redress mechanisms” should be put into place to ensure compliance.

The study, published at the beginning of May by the Valdani, Vicari and Associates (VVA) consultancy firm, noted a number of shortfalls in the executive’s approach to stifling the spread of fake news online.

The voluntary and self-regulatory nature of the agreement makes it difficult for the platforms to be held to account for breaches in the code, the study states.

“A mechanism for action in case of non-compliance of the (insufficient) implementation of the commitments that platforms signed up to, could be considered to enhance the credibility of the agreement,” the report finds.

“To that effect, the Commission should consider proposals for co-regulation within which appropriate enforcement mechanisms, sanctions and redress mechanisms should be established.”

On the point of regulation, the paper from Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia highlights their opinion that it is ‘urgent’ for the bloc to develop regulation against disinformation across social media platforms.

“This framework should establish accountability and transparency requirements for technology companies and online platforms regarding disinformation, focusing on combatting malicious online behaviour, and not regulating content,” the paper says, adding that the forthcoming European Democracy Action Plan, and the Digital Services Act package, both to be presented by the Commission this year, should “serve as the foundation of a coherent, enforceable and adaptable regulatory framework on the EU level.”

Elsewhere, the text also highlights the threats of disinformation campaigns being peddled by Russia, as well as “assertive propaganda and influencing activities” by the Government of China, drawing attention to the European External Action Service’s recent faux pas after it had allegedly toned down a report covering Chinese disinformation following disapproval from Beijing.

The EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell told Parliament’s foreign affairs committee in late-April that the Chinese had indeed ‘expressed their concern’ over media reports that the EEAS had been working on a paper criticising their government’s propaganda efforts amid the coronavirus crisis.

As a result of the mishap, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia say that the EEAS’s strategic communication division should invest more resources in covering wider global territories, its current setup being focused heavily on disinformation emanating from Russia.

“Such geographically broader approach could be reflected, inter alia, in the development of EEAS’s analytical capabilities and communication products dedicated to particular regions in their respective languages,” the paper states.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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