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Facebook, Google, Twitter and other online ad giants in Europe have signed up to a new, voluntary code of conduct aimed at tackling disinformation online.

The move, announced Sept. 26, comes as MEPs grow increasingly uneasy about potential disruption to next year’s European Parliament elections. The next day, Parliament’s civil liberties committee (LIBE) discussed a motion put forward by committee chair Claude Moraes calling for more scrutiny in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Signatories to the “EU Code of Practice on Disinformation” promise to disrupt advertising revenue from companies that spread disinformation, make political advertising more transparent, tackle online bots and fake accounts, set up methods for users to report disinformation, and create frameworks to better monitor the spread of disinformation.

The code also states that signatories will “take the reasonable measures to enable privacy-compliant access to data for fact-checking and research activities and to cooperate by providing relevant data on the functioning of their services including data for independent investigation by academic researchers and general information on algorithms.”

However, the code has been widely criticized by those who see self-regulation as a way of avoiding real regulation. “No common approach, no meaningful commitments, no measurable objectives,” said the Sounding Board of the Multistakeholder Forum.

MEP Marietje Schaake added that opaque “algorithms and the online advertising models that dominate most technology platforms are the key catalyst of the dissemination of disinformation,” and these are not adequately addressed in the code.

But Computer and Communications Industry Association Senior Policy Manager Maud Sacquet said: “Online companies are committed to continue fighting against illegal content and to provide a safe experience online. Industry cooperation and dialogue with stakeholders, including European governments, are proving to be an effective approach. Rushed legislation could have damaging consequences for online companies and user rights.”

Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel said the code was a step in the right direction but added that the European Commission will pay particular attention to its “effective implementation.”

“I will meet the signatories of the Code of Practice in the coming weeks,” she said, “to discuss the specific procedures and policies that they are adopting to make the code a reality. Online platforms need to act as responsible social players especially in this crucial period ahead of elections. They must do their utmost to stop the spread of disinformation.”

Gabriel called on more online platforms, advertising companies and advertisers to adhere to the Code of Practice and added that the Commission will closely follow the progress made and analyze the first results by the end of the year.

“Should the results prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further actions, including actions of a regulatory nature,” she warned.

Meanwhile the draft resolution by Moraes in the European Parliament acknowledges that improvements have been made since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, but calls for further action including an update to competition rules to reflect the digital reality; an audit into the activities of the advertising industry on social media; and for data protection authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into Facebook to ensure that data protection rights are upheld.

Moraes believes that if the voluntary Code of Practice is not effective “legislation is needed to make such ethical rules compulsory.”

“Today's debate was an important opportunity for an exchange of views at political level on the draft resolution. We will continue to work closely with political groups once amendments have been received to ensure that we have a balanced text which calls on the actors concerned to assume their responsibility and make sure events similar to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal can no longer occur,” Moraes told The Privacy Advisor.

“In addition, we have to look at how political parties and campaigns are using social platforms for campaign purposes,” he said.

Moraes believes that if the voluntary Code of Practice is not effective “legislation is needed to make such ethical rules compulsory.”

During the debate, he also called for companies to adhere fully to EU data protection rules and apply GDPR. “And, as legislators, we need to move forward with the ePrivacy Directive. These measures are needed to prevent future abuses and to support business models that are by design and by default compliant with fundamental rights,” he said. His colleague Axel Voss agreed that GDPR must be properly implemented, but argued that no further action against Facebook was required.

However, "The issue of the audit and investigation of Facebook by our agencies - ENISA, Eurojust and EDPS was well received," Moraes continued to the IAPP. "Also an understanding that implementation of GDPR is crucial but that the Facebook business model may well require progress on ePrivacy legislation to properly regulate. Interference in elections is such a present and critical issue that I expect the European Parliament to keep Facebook in its political priorities."

The Civil Liberties Committee will vote on the draft resolution and the proposed amendments on 10 October and the Parliament as a whole is expected to vote on the motion later in the month.

Photo credit: European Parliament State of the Union debate 2017: Shaping our future via photopin (license)

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