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Home » Data Protection, Data security, Europe, Media

Commissioner Julian King presses tech groups to tackle disinformation

Submitted by on 14 Sep 2018 – 16:55

Campaigning for stricter regulations on how much information can be collected for political purposes and how it’s used, Sir Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union, says internet platforms have a vital role to play in tackling disinformation. In an exclusive interview with Government Gazette, he explains the European Commission’s efforts in the fight against disinformation and fake news

The internet has become fundamental to our daily lives. Almost every area of society —whether private or public — heavily relies on the internet, computers and online data. From transport infrastructure and hospitals to businesses of all sizes, we depend on the benefits which flow from this digital revolution.

It’s not just about computers and phones that are connected — the news we read, the social lives we lead, the cars we drive are all shaped by the internet.

Whilst there are numerous benefits, there’s an adverse side to it too. Dependence breeds vulnerability. The digital world carries considerable potential to do good but also harm.

The recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations have demonstrated exactly how personal data can be exploited in electoral contexts, and are a timely reminder that more should be done to secure resilient democratic processes.

While the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that came into force on May 25th 2018 strives to fight against data breaches, the European Commission is taking steps forward in the fight against disinformation and to ensure the protection of European values and security.
Speaking exclusively to Government Gazette, Julian King reiterated the role of GDPR in supporting data security and called for action against internet companies that harvest personal data.

Given that GDPR potentially offers data subjects the right to be forgotten, it will now allow criminals to easily erase their digital footprints. Will GDPR prove counterproductive for national security and intelligence gathering?

No, that’s not the objective of the exercise, and that’s not what we are expecting. GDPR is important for all the reasons you know but it is part of a series of measures we are taking, including the related data protection directive for police and criminal justice authorities.
Together, these different building blocks make it clear that, with all the provisions for protecting data rights, there is still a possibility to take action; to prevent, investigate or prosecute criminal offences. There is provision for preventing threats to public security. Restrictions to achieve those objectives are provided for.

Of course, they have to be necessary — proportionate. Whilst normal people will get protection, law enforcement authorities will still be able to frustrate, detect and prosecute criminals.

After the recent Facebook scandal and the shutting down of Cambridge Analytica, data protection, electoral integrity and disinformation have all become ever so important. There’s a need to build up our society’s resilience to cyber-enabled behavioural manipulation. How does the Commission plan to deal with the problem of fake news without undermining freedom of expression and publishers’ rights?

The European Commission published a set of proposals to counter behavioural manipulation and fake news, demanding greater transparency from those who use them to micro-target messages at individuals.

There has been a sense that it is just not possible to create more accountability, transparency and traceability online without falling into the trap of censorship. But recent events are forcing us to look again at what could and should be done.

We can and should take steps to tackle the cyber threats to our digital democracies without undermining the values we stand for — free speech and critical debate. Indeed, we need to take action to protect those values or we might just wake up one morning to find that they have been critically undermined.

On one hand, we need to support and strengthen legitimate sources of information so that they are not drowned out by the noise made by fake news. On the other hand, we need to reduce the fertile soil disinformation often falls upon by encouraging greater critical thinking on a bigger scale.

We are currently working with social media platforms and tech companies to promote greater transparency, traceability and accountability for news feeds so that people know more about what they are seeing on their social media feeds.

Users should know who has created the content they are seeing, who might gain from it, and why it is being shown to them.

We are working with these tech platforms to create a “code of practice on disinformation” that will potentially make it easier for users to know whether material they are seeing is sponsored, paid for or promoted and whether it is coming from bots or real people. We also hope that this will allow users to ask questions about how their news feeds are built and assist in fact checking.

The platforms also need to provide real transparency on sponsored content, such as the identity of the sponsor and the amount they have spent, clearly marking sponsored content as such to differentiate it from other content. This is particularly important with political content and during electoral campaigns. And it would help limit the possibilities for using mined personal information to push and amplify certain messages, especially political ones.

Given that the EU has stepped up its campaign to counter disinformation and fake news from Russia by spending more than €1million a year on its specialist anti-propaganda unit, can you elaborate how the taskforce is drawing up plans on how to spend the unprecedented cash injection?

The European Parliament and the Council has urged us to boost funding, which we are very happy to do.

Over the last couple of years, the Stratcom taskforce has catalogued over 4,000 examples of disinformation and patterns of stories, including 31 different disinformation narratives around the chemical attack in Salisbury and 57 different narratives about the MH17 disaster.

This systematic attempt to misinform and confuse people needs to be taken very seriously and we therefore the support the efforts of this team to try and map this activity and bring it to public attention.

With the extra funding, we also hope we can work with them and their network of contributors and fact-checkers to make sure that we are getting the highest standards of translations.

Can you elaborate on the Commission’s efforts to ensure transparency about sponsored content, particularly political advertising?

Transparency is a key part of our efforts. We want people who are using these platforms to be able to find out more the about materials they are being shown.

The other thing we are going to do relating to that is to continue to support the development of a network of fact-checkers who look at news feeds and who can produce reports on the sources of material on social media feeds.

We hope they will help us develop a fair, objective and reliable set of indicators for measuring the amount of transparency in news feeds