Platform regulation ‘needed’ as part of Democracy Action Plan, Jourová says

Vera Jourova, European Commissioner-designate for Values and Transparency, attends her hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 07 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Regulation on the activities of online platforms is needed to foster a digital ecosystem that can “defend and promote democracy” the EU’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová said on Thursday (30 January).

Specifically, Jourová said that regulation on online political advertising is required and that platforms should be made to be more responsible and accountable.

“We are dealing with very precise targeting based on our behaviour,” she told a Brussels conference. “There is a lack of transparency in how content is channelled to us [and] who owns the algorithms.”

For their part, the platforms themselves have adopted different approaches to dealing with political advertising online. Even though other social media companies, such as Twitter, have committed to banning political advertising online, Facebook has repeatedly resisted pressure to take action against political advertising across its platforms.

On Wednesday evening (29 January), Facebook reiterated its support for the principle of free expression in light of broader concerns surrounding political expression online.

Speaking as part of a panel hosted at the Dutch Permanent Representation to the EU, Meg Chang, public policy manager for elections at Facebook, said that the company abides a commitment to freedom of expression and that it will always align itself to this principle, whenever there is ambiguity in this area.

Chang also stated that Facebook continues to believe that in legal terms, it should be considered a ‘platform’ and not a ‘publisher.’

In this vein, Jourová noted on Thursday that the Commission should carefully tread the line in terms of regulating how it distinguishes between paid political advertising and other forms of expression.

“We have to be careful in recognising the difference between paid political advertising and political opinions,” she said.

Three goals

More broadly, the Commissioner outlined three clear goals as part of the Democracy Action Plan: to strengthen media freedom, make media platforms more accountable, and protect the democratic process.

Within this rubric, she also highlighted issues related to the dissemination of disinformation online and said that both Russia and China are actively using such information warfare tactics to undermine European democracy.

“They will continue to do so until we demonstrate that will we not tolerate this aggression and interference.”

In terms of attribution, Jourová also said that more should be done in identifying the ‘source’ of disinformation campaigns, adding that it’s not only external actors conducting malicious campaigns against European democracy, but some strategies are also home-grown, too.

“We cannot only deal with the foreign interference but with internal proxies,” she said. “We need to create the techniques to find out who the producer is, what are the interests and to tackle it.”

“We are actually increasingly concerned about disinformation by actors within member states. Some campaigns are driven for profit. And some others are driven by useful idiots. So my aim is also to increase the cost of malign misinformation campaigns today.”

Digital Tax

Jourová also floated the idea of redirecting money garnered from imposing higher rates of tax on digital giants towards efforts aimed at tackling disinformation.”The digital tax didn’t materialise across the whole of Europe,” she said. “So the states are going their way on deciding to impose a digital tax on tech.

“If this comes through, I will do my best to convince the states to use part of the money for education and combating against the negative factors which influence our society.

“Throughout last year, and particularly in the run-up to the May 2019 EU elections, the European Commission had attempted to do its part to quell the spread of fake news with the introduction of a code of practice against disinformation.

The code was a voluntary framework aiming to stamp out the spread of fake news online. Signatories to the set of measures included Facebook, Google and Twitter.

In October, as part of the release of the first annual self-assessments reports of the code, the European Commission highlighted “substantial concerns” regarding access to data for independent scrutiny of tech platforms’ efforts against disinformation.

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.

Speaking at the Dutch Permanent Representation event on Wednesday, Harry Panagopulos of the Commission’s DG Just said the executive is currently in the process of assessing in detail the efficacy of the code of practice and whether it could inform the finer details of any future regulatory framework as part of the Democracy Action plan.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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