The next Elections to the European Parliament are expected to be held on 23–26 May 2019. At the moment, the Parliament boasts 751 seats, representing some 500 million people from 28 member states. which is the maximum number allowed by the EU treaties. However, in the light of Brexit, proposals put forward will redistribute 27 of the UK’s 73 seats to other countries, while keeping the remaining 46 seats for future enlargements. This would mean the number of MEPs to be elected would be 705.
The EU security commissioner, Julian King, has voiced his concerns about fake news and any part it may play in the European parliament elections and says new regulations may have to be brought in if tech firms fail to tackle issues voluntarily.
“Short-term, concrete” plans needed to be in place before the elections, when voters in 27 EU member states will elect MEPs. The Cambridge Analytica affair had “served to highlight how important the issue is”, he said in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper.
“We want to see whether we can rapidly reach agreement with key platforms and stakeholders on a policy level, with them being a bit more open about why you are seeing what you are seeing,” King said
“If we are not able to make fast enough progress on a voluntary basis, then as we have done in some other areas, we may have to view whether or not we need to look at other alternatives, including of a regulatory nature.”
Tech companies are set to welcome the voluntary approach, but raise doubts over some of the proposals. “It is wise they do it this way,” said Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, the director general of Digital Europe, which represents the industry. “If you leave people to take responsibility it is better than to punish them for something they haven’t done.”
But she gave a lukewarm response to some of the commission’s key ideas, such as algorithm transparency, where she warned against an overreaction. “For decades, we have had a certain group (of TV viewers) getting targeted ads, at certain times targeted to certain programmes. And this is not illegal, so we need to avoid an overreaction.”
On the plans to name funders behind political adverts, she said: “Let us look at the current legislation and see if anything is missing first.”
One prominent member of the commission’s expert group on disinformation warned that self-regulation would not be enough.
“The commission’s dissection of the problem is spot-on but its response lacks punch,” said Monique Goyens, the director general of the European Consumer Organisation. “If the commission is serious about fighting fake news it needs to address the fact that the advertising business model of big online platforms is an accelerant of the spread of disinformation.”
“Judging by past experience, self-regulation will not do the trick to achieve change when it comes to the likes of Facebook.”
There has been criticism over the commission’s response to handling fake news and over some high-profile mistakes and the reliance of the taskforce on a network of NGOs and journalist fact-checkers, who may be using machine translators
The EU has also run into criticism over the approach of its counter propaganda unit, East Stratcom, which runs a website, Disinformation Review, intended to weed out false facts about the EU and tell positive, true stories.
Critics have highlighted how an “unsystematic” approach risks undermining freedom of expression. Without commenting on a specific case, King said East Stratcom was “doing an important job” of uncovering “systemic attempts to run fake news stories”. Its work is “very difficult and there may be occasions when it is open to challenge and I think they welcome that challenge”.
Barring surprises, King will be the UK’s last European Commissioner. He said “I hope the UK will continue to be engaged with this work as we take it forward,” adding that the National Cyber Security Centre in London “is recognised widely, not just in Europe, as a real authority in this field”.
Under King’s ideas, social media companies would sign a voluntary code of conduct to prevent the “misuse of platforms to pump out misleading information”.
And a pledge for greater transparency is another proposal along with the proposal for political adverts to be accompanied with information about who paid for them.
The ideas are expected to form part of a European commission policy paper on online disinformation, due to be published shortly.