Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis, a huge amount of fake news has been spread across the internet. Now, the Commission has recommended measures to improve the fight against future disinformation. However, comprehensive protection of internet users also requires the consequent protection of their data.
Right from the start of the Covid-19 crisis, social media was flooded with misinformation on the new virus. The EU’s Rapid Alert System, which had been launched in December 2018 as part of the Action Plan against Disinformation raised the alarm. This Rapid Alert System shall promote the exchange of information on fake news between EU Member States and G7 partners. Circulating misinformation referred to the origin of the virus, the way it was transmitted or to any alleged remedies. That these might even represent a real danger to health is shown for example by the rumours concerning the alleged positive effect of bleach. Belgium for example recorded a jump in cases, where people had to seek medical help after having improperly used bleach.
In response to the continued flood of misinformation, Vice President Věra Jourová and representatives of numerous large internet platforms had already agreed in early March 2020 to adopt a stricter approach against misinformation. Within the scope of a Webinar of the Renew faction on 4 June 2020, Jourová also addressed the problems with targeted disinformation campaigns by foreign governments. In particular Russia and China have time and again been accused of wanting to influence matters by fake news. “It is high time to step up on this and not to allow others such as China to occupy the space“, said Jourová.
Commission against disinformation in connection with Corona
In a Communication of 10 June 2020, the Commission proposes concrete measures to tackle disinformation in connection with the Covid-19 crisis. Of vital importance would be the cooperation inside the EU but also with international partners, journalists and civil society actors in third countries. The Consumer Protection Cooperation network shall also be supported in this sector. With regard to transparency, the Commission proposes measures, which go beyond the Code of Practice on Disinformation. Online platforms shall be made to discharge their duties and will be required to provide monthly reports on their rules and measures regarding disinformation in connection with the spread of the Coronavirus. They shall also expand their cooperation with fact-checkers and researchers, whose work shall also be supported by the Commission. Empowering citizens, raising citizens awareness and increasing social resilience shall also be strengthened – for example by media literacy projects and the support of civil society organisations. Apart from that, the proposed measures shall form the basis for a longer-term concept and also become part of the planned Digital Services Act.
For SPÖ MEP, the “flood of fake news during Covid-19 does not only represent a danger to our health, but also to democracy”. Schieder welcomes the intention of the Commission to hold large internet groups increasingly more to account: “The time of voluntariness is definitely over”. Parallel to this, he urges for better pay and psychological care of staff, who, within the scope of fact checks, try to stem the problem.
Council conclusions on shaping Europe’s digital future
The issue of misinformation is also addressed in a Council conclusion on shaping Europe’s digital future of 9 June 2020. In it, the Council stresses among other the need for effective and proportionate action against illegal activities and content online and acknowledges the need “to address the dissemination of hate speech and disinformation online”. Apart from that, free and trustworthy media shall be promoted as part of a future-proof media policy. These were of particular importance in the digital transformation process and crucial for European democracy, while at the same time helping to counteract the spread misinformation online.
The digital future must be socially fair and secure
The Chamber of Labour welcomes the Communication on shaping Europe’s digital future, which was presented by the Commission on 19 February. It contains some basically positive proposals, for example the commitment to a digital transformation, which is in keeping with the European social model and the statement that society shall benefit of the digital dividend. However, at the same time, the Communication consistently remains at a very general and little detailed level, thereby missing the opportunity to clearly address existing conflicting goals. However, from the AK’s point of view it is, within the scope of digital transformation, plain to see that securing and strengthening labour law and welfare aspects with active participation of the social partners is urgently required.
Also on 19 February 2020, the EU Commission published its Communication on a European strategy for data. Due to the associated Consultation – in which the Chamber of Labour also participated – the AK refers to a number of general considerations regarding the subject. The AK generally welcomes the project of a common European Data strategy; however, it does point out that a large number of considerations concerning comprehensive data protection, balanced opportunities for consumers and users of data, fair opportunities to compete also for smaller businesses as well as improved regulation of major “data collectors” have to become part of the strategy. As the representative of the interests of all employees in Austria, the AK also focusses its attention on collecting and processing data. The AK does not only demand the comprehensive protection of consumers, but also the market-specific regulation of digital infrastructure facilities and access to data in accordance with the competition law. High concentration in the provision of Cloud services must be prevented and planned political targets must be well considered. What is also required are co-determination rights for employees and (inter) corporate representation of interest as well as a broader integration of social partners and civil society actors.