Europe wants to crack down on illegal speech. Instead, it risks allowing the spread of disinformation.
Here’s how: the EU is debating a landmark bill to define the liability of digital platforms for the content they host – the Digital Services Act. While originally designed as a tool for making YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and others more responsible for moderating their users, the European Parliament has driven it into new, dangerous directions.
Key parliamentarians want to make e-commerce marketplaces responsible for every product (billions are listed) sold by independent sellers on their platforms. In a little-noticed maneuver, the parliamentarians also want to introduce a wide-ranging media exemption – forbidding platforms, under the guise of media freedom, from touching any content published by press organizations.
Although designed and supported by traditional media, the potential impact of such an exemption could be disastrous. This clause would have blocked YouTube from deleting Russia Today’s German-language channels for spreading disinformation.
That’s not an isolated example. State-sponsored media is responsible for modern disinformation. Sophisticated disinformation campaigns use news portals or news websites to camouflage their operation as legitimate and spread their disinformation. Examples include Indian and Russian information operations.
The danger comes not just from state actors, but also rogue private media. France Soir enjoys a long, illustrious pedigree. Created clandestinely by the French resistance during World War II, it became one of the beacons of the French press’s postwar revival.
In 2014, entrepreneur Xavier Azalbert bought the title, fired most of the remaining journalists, and filled the paper’s pages with promotional materials. When COVID-19 hit, the paper touted French professor Didier Raoult who supported anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment – without evidence, scientists say. Articles about Raoult were signed by “France Soir.”
The French Ministry of Culture is now considering whether to revoke France Soir’s official press status. But the damage is done and the warning is clear: established news brands might benefit from hijacking media privilege in order to spread disinformation.
No one doubts the need for modernizing the rules governing the Internet. The Digital Services Act is designed to update Europe’s E-Commerce Directive, which dates from the beginning of the century. The US similarly is considering how to reform Section 230 of its communications code.
Both laws were enacted at the birth of the Internet. They set clear limits on liability for digital platforms. Platforms weren’t held responsible for content uploaded to their sites. Instead, they were responsible only for bringing down illegal material when informed.
A common European approach is urgent. In recent years, individual member states have passed a series of individual laws. Germany imposed a NetzDG on social media content in 2017. France passed a law this year requiring social media companies to delete illegal content within an hour.
The initial European Commission DSA proposal kept key elements of the E-Commerce directive, the prohibition on general monitoring, and the country of origin principle. Platforms would not be forced to vet all content before being uploaded. They could continue to pick a single European Union member state as home and operate under its rules throughout the 27-member European Union. And crucially, they were free to police their platform, enjoying a Good Samaritan clause that retained their liability exemptions when they tried to do the right thing and remove hateful speech.
These good ideas are now in danger of boomeranging. By giving a free ride to the broadly defined “editorial content providers” and “media service providers” and exempting them from any moderation, European parliamentarians risk turning the Digital Services Act into a highway for hate speech and disinformation.
There are other dangers, too. If “media” is exempt, platforms will be forced to carry out checks to make sure they are not blocked by error. This requires general monitoring. It will lock in large platforms with the resources to police their sites and withstand liability suits. Smaller platforms will be squeezed.
Europe’s parliamentarians should reject a proposal that risks turning the new Digital Services Act into a vehicle for spreading disinformation.