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With elections looming the EU pressures internet companies over ‘disinformation’

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Having signed up to the EU’s code of practice against disinformation, a bunch of tech companies are inevitably being told they need to do more.

The EU extracted a formal promise at the end of September 2018 from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and the trade associations representing the advertising sector to try to tackle whatever the EU deemed to be political disinformation online. When we covered it we reckoned it would be the thin end of the wedge and would be used to extract further concessions in future, and so it has turned out.

A European Commission missive today called on signatories to the code of practice to do better. It said there had been some progress in things like removing fake accounts, but wants full transparency of political ads by the start of the campaign for the European elections in all EU Member States.

“Signatories have taken action, for example giving people new ways to get more details about the source of a story or ad,” said Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market.  “Now they should make sure these tools are available to everyone across the EU, monitor their efficiency, and continuously adapt to new means used by those spreading disinformation. There is no time to waste.”

As if to illustrate the homogeneous hive mind that is the EC the release featured quotes from three other Commissioners saying almost exactly the same as Ansip. Seriously, check it out.

“With the launch of European election network with EU authorities last week and this report today, we are stepping up the pace on all fronts to ensure free and fair elections,” said Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “I expect companies will fully follow up on their rhetoric and commitment. Time is short so we need to act now.”

“Given the proximity of the European elections, any progress made in the fight against disinformation is welcome,” said Julian King, Commissioner for the Security Union. “But we need to go further and faster before May. We don’t want to wake up the day after the elections and realise we should have done more.”

“Today’s reports rightly focus on urgent actions, such as taking down fake accounts,” said Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. It is a good start. “Now I expect the signatories to intensify their monitoring and reporting and increase their cooperation with fact-checkers and research community. We need to ensure our citizens’ access to quality and objective information allowing them to make informed choices.”

As ever the signatories will have armies of experts calculating the precise minimum level of compliance required to keep the EC off their back, but they should avoid trying to be too cute because the EC can get pretty vindictive when it feels the private sector is being insufficiently deferential.

The companies will now get their work marked on a monthly basis and they’d better not slack off, or else. “By the end of 2019, the Commission will carry out a comprehensive assessment at the end of the Code’s initial 12-month period,” concludes the announcement. “Should the results prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further actions, including of a regulatory nature.”

Reading between the lines, the entire Eurocracy is presumably pretty worried about how May’s European elections will play out. They have traditionally been able to count on voter apathy to ensure nice compliant MEPs. But upheaval across the continent, vividly demonstrated via the gilet jaunes movement, means people might actually bother to vote this time, and for some pretty out-there candidates. This could be an attempt to limit the ability of such candidates to spread their message.


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