No ‘ministry of truth’, EU vows at democracy action plan launch

European Commission vice-president in charge for values and Transparency Vera Jourova gives a press conference on European Democracy Action Plan and a new Strategy on the Charter of Fundamental Rights at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 03 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / POOL]

The European Commission unveiled on Thursday (3 December) its Democracy Action Plan, the first piece of a digital agenda package that aims to fight disinformation, enforce rules on fair competition in online public debates, and protect the integrity of elections.

“We do not want to create a ministry of truth, freedom of speech is essential,” Věra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency said.

“I will not support any solution that undermines it but we also cannot have our societies manipulated,” Jourová added.

‘From self-regulation’ to ‘co-regulation’

The plan foresees more obligations and accountability for online platforms for disseminating and amplifying disinformation, false or misleading content intentionally spread for political or economic gain.

“We will move from self-regulation to co-regulation,” Jourova said.

The executive was dissatisfied with the results of the code of practice against disinformation signed voluntarily by the largest platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

The forthcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) will set horizontal rules for platforms including obligations to adopt risk-mitigating measures and an updated code of practice.

Next spring, the Commission will issue guidance setting out how platforms need to step up their measures based on its assessment of the code of practice, in parallel with setting up discussions on bolstering the code with platforms and other stakeholders, such as advertisers, media, civil society, fact-checkers, and academia.

The updated code aims to monitor the impact of disinformation based on indicators and provide users with the ability to gauge the trustworthiness of sources.

It also seeks to support adequate visibility of reliable information – similar to what platforms implemented during the COVID-19 crisis when users were led to information by national and international health authorities – and limit the algorithmic amplification of disinformation while introducing standards for collaboration with fact-checkers and researchers.

Once the beefed-up code of practice is in place, the Commission will set up a monitoring and auditing framework.

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Luca Nicotra, a researcher at the online rights campaign group Avaaz, said the proposed framework “could be groundbreaking.”

“Of course, this is just a kind of declaration of intent,” Nicotra said, “it could be a Paris Agreement for disinformation where, even if it is not binding, you have all the actors coming together, agreeing on what the facts are and setting goals and deciding.”

“Or it could be like an ineffective statement that lets platforms report on the metrics they want and as such basically always succeeding,” Nicotra told EURACTIV.

When it comes to disinformation campaigns by foreign actors, the Commission plans to develop a “cyber diplomacy toolbox” that will include more support for existing structures as well as imposing costs on perpetrators, which may include “imposing sanctions following repeated offences.”

Commission floats sanctions regime for disinformation offenders

As part of the European Commission’s Democracy Action Plan, presented on Thursday (3 December), the EU is charting the establishment of punitive measures to improve the bloc’s and member states’ capacity to counter disinformation.

Protecting elections

The Commission also plans to introduce new legislation in the third quarter of next year on the transparency of political advertising and communication to allow users to recognize paid-for political material.

“Micro-targeting and behavioural profiling techniques can rely on data improperly obtained, and be misused to direct divisive and polarising narratives,” the document reads, citing the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“I don’t want elections to be a competition of dirty methods,” Jourova said, adding that “promoting political ideas is not the same as promoting products.”

The new legislation will complement the rules on online advertising in the DSA, with the aim to have dedicated rules in place ahead of the May 2024 European Parliament elections.

The Commission also plans a review of the legislation on the funding of European political parties, primarily because of concerns of indirect funds paddled by foreign interests channelled through “national means or private donations.”

Protecting journalists and media pluralism

There have been 344 attacked media professionals or entities in 22 EU member states since the beginning of 2020, according to Media Freedom Rapid Response project, one in four incidents resulted in media workers being physically attacked, while 23 alerts from 13 countries were related to legal threats against journalists, media workers and outlets.

After numerous calls by media advocates, the Commission pledged to come forward with an initiative to protect journalists against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) used to silence reporters and activists in late 2021.

“At the moment we have to map the situation better because it’s a complex issue, it’s as complex as it was to do the whistleblowers legislation in the past mandate,” an EU official said.

“The Commission is right to want to tackle SLAPP lawsuits for the threat they pose to democracy,” Linda Ravo, expert adviser to the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), said.

According to Ravo, who authored a model EU anti-SLAPP law supported by more than 60 NGOs and media outlets, these lawsuits “are a dangerous form of censorship meant to shut off the media and public watchdogs we rely on to hold the powerful to account and keep the democratic debate alive.”

“We hope that a strong EU- anti-SLAPP law is at the core of the initiative the Commission has announced for 2021” as part of its Action Plan on Democracy,” she added.

{Edited by Samuel Stolton and Benjamin Fox]

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