EU mulls disinformation regulation but admits alert system has ‘never been triggered’

w_55162596 [EPA-EFE/HARISH TYAGI]

The case for the EU regulation of online disinformation “will be evaluated” in the coming months ahead of a decision in early 2020, a Commission official revealed on Tuesday (29 October). At the same time, the EU’s executive conceded that its disinformation alert system has never been triggered.

An EU Commission official informed EURACTIV that the Commission will come to a decision next year on whether disinformation shall face regulation, either on its own terms or under the scope of the prospective Digital Services Act – a new legal framework to be presented by the Commission in 2020.

Next year’s decision, the official said, would be based on ‘four inputs’. Those include a mid-December report from the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services, analysis from an independent consultancy, overall assessments produced by a third-party organisation chosen by signatories of the code, as well as an EU report on disinformation produced subsequent to the European elections earlier this year.

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Rapid Alert System never ‘triggered’ 

However, regulation against online fake news is far from certain. The EU admitted on Tuesday that its own rapid alert system, a mechanism created in March that aims to raise the alarm on serious disinformation campaigns, has never been used.

“It is true that we have not triggered this alert so far,” a senior Commission source familiar with the matter said, due to the fact that the required ‘threshold’ required for the reporting of the serious disinformation campaigns has not been met.

However, the official said that the metrics do not represent “scientific thresholds” that can be measured, but rather are more abstract parameters, such as whether an instance of disinformation is part of a cross-border campaign, and if it is coordinated, intentional, with a political aim and with a certain ‘spread.’

Since the system was introduced, the official said, the EU has “not detected a campaign which would be comparable, for example, to the campaigns that were reported during the previous US elections.”

However, the EU’s Security Commissioner Julian King appeared to contradict this on Tuesday, telling The Guardian that in the run-up to the European elections earlier this year, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party may have benefitted from activity allegedly emanating from fake accounts on Facebook.

In this vein, the EU source told EURACTIV that “even if we have not detected disinformation campaigns with our tools, it does not mean that they are totally absent”.

The source added that the rapid alert system should not be judged on the number of alerts triggered, but rather on how member states can learn from one another in terms of sharing data and assessing disinformation campaigns, which the official said had been a “gigantic success.”

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Platforms evading scrutiny

More broadly, the European Commission highlighted “substantial concerns” regarding the access to data for independent scrutiny of tech platforms’ efforts against disinformation, as part of the release of the first annual self-assessments reports of the code, by signatories including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter and seven European trade associations.

In a statement, the Commission said tech platforms have not been permitting sufficient access to their data to meet the needs of independent scrutiny and there is an “urgent need” for platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Google to establish better relationships with researchers and fact-checkers looking to probe the work platforms conduct in order to stifle disinformation.

In response to the analysis, Green MEP Viola von Cramon told EURACTIV that “fact-checkers need to get much better support from the Commission”.

EPP’s MEP Vladimír Bilčík said he is “concerned about the lack of cooperation of platforms with fact-checkers across the EU,” adding that he “expects more systematic work and diligent adherence to the rules on the side of the platforms.”

A Commission official informed EURACTIV that the reason platforms may have been reluctant to open up data for researcher so far, may be due to the fact that they are aiming to “minimise legal risks” in the context of strong EU data protection law.

On the positive side, the Commission reflects fondly on the progress the code of practice has made so far, with a joint statement from Commissioners Jourová, King, and Gabriel stating that they “commend the commitment of the online platforms to become more transparent,” despite the further work that still needs to be done.

For their part, on Tuesday signatories to the code attempted to highlight the moves they have made against the fight against online disinformation.

Milan Zubíček, manager of government affairs and public policy at Google informed EURACTIV that the company is “proud to mark a year of progress since we signed the Code” after having “expanded policies, products and resources dedicated to thwarting disinformation.” 

A Twitter spokesperson told EURACTIV that the company notes the Commission’s findings, but that it is doing everything it can to tackle the issue of fake news, reportedly, “publishing the industry’s largest archive of data on state-backed information operations as part of efforts to tackle platform manipulation.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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