Freedom of the press: Why censorship by platforms must be resisted

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Pierre Louette is the President of the Paris-based Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale, which represents 300 French newspaper publishers. He is also CEO of Les Echos-Le Parisien. He wrote this op-ed exclusively for EURACTIV.com. [Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale]

The Digital Services Act is a major piece of legislation that should result in a safer digital space. However, a recent vote in the European Parliament stopped short of adopting an amendment that would have made freedom of information in Europe free from non-EU private sector digital giants, writes Pierre Louette.

Pierre Louette is the president of the Paris-based Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale, which represents 300 French newspaper publishers. He is also CEO of Les Echos-Le Parisien. He wrote this op-ed exclusively for EURACTIV.com.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) has just published the results of its vote regarding the regulation on a single market for digital services (commonly known as the Digital Services Act or DSA).

This is an important milestone for a piece of legislation that should result in a safer digital space as it would impose tougher rules on content moderation and the transparency of recommendation algorithms, writes Pierre Louette.

However, the vote leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because it does not adopt the amendment to ban platforms from interfering with the dissemination of media content, thereby making freedom of information within Europe subject to the control of non‑EU private-sector digital giants.

The press should not have to answer to platforms

On 1 November, journalist Samuel Etienne’s Twitch account was suspended for three days because he posted an article from Le Parisien containing a screenshot of a 1961 film called “L’exécution” in which an actress’s naked posterior is visible.

The moderators of this US video game platform, whose general terms and conditions of use forbid nudity, suspended the account without taking into consideration the informative nature of the post.

This is not an isolated incident: in September, Instagram threatened to delete the account of photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie after removing around 10 of her photos for breaching its “violence or dangerous organisations” policy.

The photos, which depicted members of the Taliban, were taken as part of the journalist’s war reporting in Afghanistan and were published in several magazines. It was only after a major backlash from the profession and her followers that the US platform reversed its decision to censor her.

Unfortunately, instead of banning this kind of censorship, the DSA could enshrine it in law.

As part of the enhanced moderation obligation that it imposes on platforms, the current version of the legislation gives them free rein to apply their own rules, which are often more restrictive than national laws, and to make their own arbitrary decisions to all content that they host, including media content that is lawfully published elsewhere.

Some argue that there is no reason to give the media preferential treatment. However, they forget that journalists are information professionals who, like the companies that employ them, are already subject to strict obligations. In France, for example, the director of a publication that puts out unlawful content runs the risk of a criminal conviction.

There is therefore no reason to give platforms the task of double-checking the lawfulness of press content – nor should they be allowed to censor press publications on the grounds that they do not comply with their terms and conditions of use.

Platforms are unable to gauge the validity of these publications and, most importantly, they have no legitimacy to do so.

Although some of them are setting themselves up as de facto judicial authorities and devising their own “supreme courts”, we should not be giving them the blessing of European law.
It is worth remembering that in a democracy, the press should answer only to its citizens, through the law.

In addition, the removal or blocking of information published in accordance with the law leads to an immediate loss of visibility. This also has implications for the economic viability of the press, which is already fragile.

A stronger press, not censorship by platforms, is the way to combat disinformation

Some raise the objection that disinformation, particularly from abroad, can spread when the media is not subject to moderation by platforms – especially given that there is no precise definition of a “medium” in European law.

However, “press publications” have been clearly defined in law since the European directive on copyright and related rights. In addition, legal tools for combating fake news already exist (e.g. French law during election periods and the European Commission’s code of practice on disinformation).

Finally, and most importantly, the most effective and long‑term way to combat disinformation is by fostering a critical mindset among citizens.

This is the purpose of the Alliance Pour l’Éducation aux Médias (APEM) created by the Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale (APIG): to raise awareness of the role and power that information resources have in the lives of citizens and the French Republic, and to defend press freedom.

Although Europe claims to be combating propaganda from authoritarian states, it is actually preparing to institutionalise private-sector, foreign and widespread censorship of its press. But the greatest irony is that, by doing so, it is playing entirely into the hands of its adversaries by undermining freedom of expression, which forms the very heart of its democratic model.

There is still time to safeguard freedom of information and to move forward with legislation that is crucial for the future of our information economy.

I therefore call upon the European legislature to resist the calls of those who would like to muzzle the press and privatise control over our freedom of expression by introducing, in future discussions, safeguards that prevent platforms from interfering with press publications.

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