European Ombudsman surveillance

A step closer to digital rights protections: EU calls for transparency in the fight against disinfo

After much anticipation, the European Commission today, December 3, published the Communication on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP)  a new plan to ensure EU citizens are able to participate in democracy through informed decision-making, free from unlawful interference and manipulation. The EDAP is a timely initiative coming from the cabinet of Vice President Jourova and her team in the fight against electoral manipulation, the spread of disinformation and misinformation, and the rise of extremism across the European Union. 

“We welcome the Commission’s efforts to strengthen transparency around political microtargeting, amplification of potentially harmful content, and the establishment of a data access framework for researchers,” said Eliška Pírková, Europe Policy Analyst at Access Now. “While we are getting closer to systemic regulation of online gatekeepers to protect fundamental rights, very little is known about concrete measures that will translate the Commission’s good intentions into best practice. In the past, we saw that the carrot and stick policy has hardly delivered a desirable outcome.”  

Upon initial review of the EDAP,  Access Now has identified several positive indicators:

  • There is a clear link between the upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) and EDAP;
  • The DSA horizontal framework will force large online gatekeepers to assess the systemic risks of algorithmic systems, as well as the risk imposed by potentially illegal content to public interest, fundamental rights of users, public health, and security;
  • The foreseeing of the revision of the EU Code of Practice on disinformation revision that contains a voluntary set of transparency rules that will be linked to further enforcement measures in the DSA; and
  • The emphasis on the importance of meaningful transparency that the DSA and the EDAP should finally impose on large online platforms, specifically focusing on amplification of disinformation, and by establishing a data access framework for researchers. 

Access Now appreciates the European Commission’s reiteration that, “the GDPR does not a priori and across the board prohibit the sharing of personal data by platforms with researchers.” Access Now hopes  that consultations will include the meaningful participation of experts, researchers, civil society and affected groups to develop a functioning mechanism to scrutinise Facebook and others. 

It also raises questions. The biggest question mark arises around the intentions to extend the list of EU crimes to establish minimum rules to include online hate speech and hate crime. This opens a can of worms about criminalisation of speech and how exactly the threshold between incitement to violence and hate speech will be established, as not every form of online hate speech falls outside the protective scope of the right to freedom of expression and opinion.   

Furthermore, what will be the foundations of the long-awaited legislation on political advertisement to strengthen the transparency of sponsored content within political context, the first draft of which the Communication has now confirmed is expected in the first half of 2021?

Access Now remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the EDAP tools, and will continue to monitor it closely.