Regulation against fake news ‘very important,’ Reynders says

European Commissioner for Justice and rule of law Didier Reynders during an European General Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, 10 December 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The European Parliament and Council should work with the Commission to consider how best to implement a potential legal clampdown on fake news online, the EU’s Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has said.

Speaking to members of the Parliament’s internal market committee on Tuesday (14 April), Reynders said that in the context of the current coronavirus outbreak, the issue of how disinformation online is managed by the authorities has only become more pertinent.

“During the crisis we need to continue to work with the platforms, to ask to remove a lot of messages from the different platforms on social media,” Reynders said.

“But then we need to think about a regulation because we don’t have for the moment the capacity to go further than that, and to do more than just a voluntary approach with the different actors.”

“It’s true that during the crisis, it’s very important to fight against that, but it will be so very important with the Parliament and the Council to think about the best way to organise a regulation maybe in the near future,” Reynders said.

The Belgian Commissioner added that due to the fact that the executive has only been working alongside a limited number of platforms in its bid to reign in the spread of fake news amid the crisis, there was not a level playing field in how the issue is being dealt with, and a broader, more stringent framework is therefore required.

Platform efforts

The subject of mis- and disinformation has been a concerning issue for many in Brussels, as the coronavirus has spread across Europe.

On 27 March, the Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová sat down with tech platforms Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and the association EDiMA, in a second meeting since the coronavirus outbreak in the EU.

The platforms assured Jourová that they have started to actively promote coronavirus information emanating from authoritative sources. They have also pledged to demote or remove forbidden or harmful content on the issue.

Measures have also been put in place to remove ads related to vital medical equipment, in order to prevent traders from profiteering from the crisis. Despite this, there remain ‘gaps’ in fully enforcing these policies, according to a Commission readout of the meeting.

The agreements to take action against online disinformation in the context of the coronavirus come following the implementation, as part of the 2018 Action plan on disinformation, of the code of practice against disinformation, which was brought in ahead of the EU elections last year.

The code is a self-regulatory voluntary framework signed by platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter, which obliges them to take measures to control the surge of disinformation online. In mid-March the European Court of Auditors announced that it has launched a probe into the bloc’s effectiveness of stifling fake news via the code of practice.

Reynders’ comments ‘concerning’

For her part, the Green MEP Alexandra Geese expressed surprise at Reynders’ comments on Tuesday. “I found the strong rhetoric in this area quite concerning,” Geese told EURACTIV.

“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be regulation, but perhaps instead we should look at other ways of incentivising and producing trustworthy information, or making the platforms more transparent.”

“The comments are even more concerning in the context of what has recently happened in Hungary,” she added.

At the end of March, the Hungarian Parliament adopted new measures that could see prison terms dished out for those accused of spreading misinformation, as part of an emergency bill put forward in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

The text of the new bill states that those who spread false information or “distorted” facts could be prosecuted, with terms carrying “one to five years of imprisonment.”

Meanwhile, a leaked draft Council of the EU conclusions document on Shaping Europe’s Digital Future recently obtained by EURACTIV noted the importance establishing a framework for restrictions on certain forms of online content.

The document states that the Presidency “strongly emphasises the need for clear and harmonised rules and responsibilities and accountability for digital services,” while stressing the need for “effective action against illegal activities and content online,” and protecting fundamental rights.

Any specific rules in this area had been expected to appear in the Commission’s upcoming Digital Services Act, slated to be presented late this year, but now likely to appear early in 2021.

However, with Reynders’ comments on Tuesday, any regulatory action in the field of disinformation is more likely to be included in the forthcoming Democracy Action Plan framework, which is due before the end of the year.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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