By EDRi

Today, 26 April 2018, the European Commission adopted a Communication on “tackling online disinformation”. European Digital Rights (EDRi), The Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) and Access Now will jointly respond by issuing a joint shadow report in the coming weeks.

“Good policy is based on evidence. For the moment, we have different initiatives from the European Commission that do not even agree on how to define the problem being addressed”,

said Maryant Fernández Pérez, Senior Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi).

First we have to understand the problem we face: the real effect of fake news. For that, we need research and data. Liberties urges policy makers to refrain from placing disproportionate limits on free speech and privacy. Doing so will not solve the problem of fake news, but make the situation worse,” said Eva Simon, advocacy officer for freedom of expression at Liberties.

Policy makers should move away from generic and misleading actions under the false umbrella term of ‘fake news’. Access Now urges all actors to adopt, strengthen and respect enforceable privacy rules around online tracking which can solve challenges in the information ecosystem including the spreading of misinformation and profiling of users“, added Fanny Hidvégi, European Policy Manager at Access Now.

We urge the European Commission not to rush into taking binding measures regarding “fake news” or “online disinformation” but rather, take the expertise of civil liberties and digital rights experts into account. Liberties, EDRi and Access Now highlight that any and all measures aimed at addressing online disinformation should:

  • have a clear and narrow problem definition;
  • be based on clear empirical data of actual harms that are of a scale that merits intervention;
  • fully respect international human rights law on freedom of expression, personal data protection and privacy;
  • have clear benchmarks;
  • be subject to rigorous ongoing review to prevent counterproductive effects for freedom of expression, privacy and the public policy goals of the measures;
  • not lead to harmful consequences for the technical functioning of the Internet; among others, they should avoid its fragmentation, and ensure that its security, stability and resiliency is intact; and
  • avoid any measure, such as ancillary copyright, which would serve to make access to quality journalism more difficult and make it even easier to spread disinformation.

Liberties, EDRi and Access Now are working on issuing a shadow report in the coming weeks to provide a thorough human rights assessment of current policy considerations and make constructive recommendations. In the meantime, our full position is in our responses to the Commission’s public consultation.

Background

On 13 November 2017, the European Commission launched a public consultation on “fake news” and “online disinformation”, which did not include a clear definition of “fake news”.

On 13 November 2017, the European Commission announced plans for a “high level expert group” on “fake news” without defining the subject or subjects in which the experts were expected to be experts in.

On 12 January, 2018, the European Commission appointed the 39 people to the Group, which included seven TV broadcaster representatives, but did not include the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion nor a digital rights-focused organisation.

On 12 March 2018, the European Commission published a Eurobarometer opinion survey where individuals were asked about their views on “fake news”. Respondents, however, were told that “news or information that misrepresent reality or that are even false” are called “fake news”. On the same date, the “High-Level Expert Group” presented its final report on the topic. The report would have benefited from more diversity among its membership. For example, we are concerned that the definition of “disinformation” they provide is too broad and relies on the intent rather than the actual effect of the “disinformation”. However, the report raises several key points that we welcome:

  • The High-Level Expert Group cast doubt on the methodology of the Eurobarometer survey, pointing out that “research has shown that citizens often associate the term ‘fake news’ with partisan political debate and poor journalism broadly, rather than more pernicious and precisely defined forms of disinformation.” This clearly indicates that asking about “fake news” in a survey very probably produced unreliable outputs.
  • The report states unequivocally that “censorship and online surveillance and other misguided responses that can backfire substantially, and that can be used by purveyors of disinformation in an “us vs. them” narrative that can de-legitimize responses against disinformation and be counter-productive in the short and long run. Attention should also be paid to lack of transparency and to the privatization of censorship by delegation to specific bodies/entities or private companies”.

On 18 March 2018, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) published an opinion on online manipulation and personal data which rightly points out that “fake news” is a “symptom of concentrated, unaccountable digital markets, constant tracking and reckless handling of personal data”.

On 26 April 2018, the European Commission published a Communication on fake news and online disinformation. As with previous initiatives on illegal or unwelcome content online, the European Commission fails to:

  • recognise that measures can backfire;
  • collect data to get early warnings of any such counterproductive effects; or
  • plan for measures to respond to any counterproductive effects.

Read more:

EDRi’s response to the public consultation for legal entities – “Fake news and online disinformation” (22.02.2018)
https://edri.org/files/consultations/fakenews_edriresponse_2018022.pdf

EU Could Kill Free Speech in Fight Against Fake News (12.03.2018)
https://www.liberties.eu/en/news/eu-could-kill-free-speech-in-fight-against-fake-news/14532

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