Even after US President Trump is gone, the underlying causes of division, mistrust, and frustration won’t go away and Europe must future-proof itself against any risks to democracy – particularly in the online world, writes Věra Jourová.
Věra Jourová is Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency.
We are still shocked about what happened in the US. But we cannot afford to be shocked today and forget tomorrow. Democracy is fragile, prone to attacks from within and from outside. We, the advocates of democracy, have been guilty of negligence and of a naïve belief that democracy together with its values and freedoms will defend itself.
We have very tangible, yet tragic proof that this is not true and that many people have simply lost trust in democratic institutions. We also know that the digital sphere creates both opportunities and huge risks for democracies and the time has come to bring order to the digital expression of democracy. Facts belong to everyone; opinion belongs to an individual – this distinction has been damaged and what happened in the US has seeds in Europe, too. It can only be repaired if there is trust – in science, in governments, and in society.
Attention right now focuses on the role of the Big Tech. Yes, they have allowed conspiracy theories to flourish. Yes, they have made money on disinformation and allowed malicious actors to pursue economic or political goals. Yes, they avoided responsibility and accountability, and yes, they influence or even can control our democratic debate.
The fact that they can permanently remove a sitting US President based on unclear criteria and without oversight can be dangerous for free speech. Even though I believe President Trump’s irresponsible incitement to violence deserved action, it is clear that we cannot continue like this. In the end, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
What can we do? The answer is complex because democracy requires complexity. The response must be thorough. We cannot constantly play the whack-a-mole to tackle only the problem that grabs the headlines.
First, we need tougher regulation, more enforceable obligations, and increased responsibility of digital players. We have recently proposed the Digital Services Act that will increase accountability of online platforms and clarify the rules for taking down illegal content. This is a ground-breaking proposal, but they will need time to become a reality and we need to act now.
This brings me to my second point. We need immediate steps to reorganize our democratic participation in the digital age and equip ourselves with better tools to fight disinformation and harmful content. The European Democracy Action Plan is our map of what we should do next in this respect. We need a new pact against disinformation, we need accountability of algorithms and we need companies to stop shooting from the hip, but rather become part of a predictable and transparent system. We need more transparency of their policies and access to relevant data.
Regulation alone will not, and in my opinion should not, address all the details of digital life. We must not sacrifice freedom of expression which requires open space – online and offline. But we need to reshape the thinking of tech companies and tech workers. Architects follow not only law, but also ethical codes, to ensure that the buildings they design are safe for the people. Coders and IT experts should have a similar approach when designing their algorithms, something I rarely hear from the tech executives.
Thirdly, we have to stop pretending that today’s gatekeepers face competition. Today, they don’t. We cannot choose between rival platforms in the same way that we choose between supermarkets. The situation is more like saying I do not like the highway between Brussels and Paris, so I choose to build a new one. This is why they need to be subject to special rules and responsibilities proposed in the Digital Markets Act.
Finally, we have to also realise that Trump is not only a cause but mainly a symptom. Once he is gone, the underlying causes of division, mistrust, and frustration will not go away. Nor are these features unique for American society alone. We have them here at home in Europe, too.
This is why we cannot focus on platforms alone. We need to make our education fit into digital reality. We all have to become more digitally literate, understand the basics of what is happening online and why we are seeing certain content. This will allow us to navigate safely online.
We have to stop accepting attacks on values, rule of law, independent judges and media, fundamental rights and democracy as normal. We have to fight back. We have to show people the risk to democracy are risks to their rights and freedoms. We have to find passion behind mundane democratic reality.
We also cannot leave people behind. Since the permanent ban on Trump, many of his supporters have migrated to other online spaces, locking themselves up in bubbles that are even more hermetic. We cannot forget about them. We have to find a way for them to become part of the democratic debate again and rebuild the trust of citizens in democracy and in the power of democratic renewal.
As a person coming from an ex-communist country, Czechoslovakia, I have tasted life without democracy and equal rights. Yes, democracy is not perfect. It is a reflection of who we are, but its biggest advantage is that it relies on us, the people, and on our trust in each other. This is absolutely worth fighting for.