EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of US president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the US to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the US capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of UK politician, Jo Cox, by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [US] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the Internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as ‘problematic’; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-US relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the US — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington,” she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset US relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in vis-a-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech vs the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of US surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the US and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his ‘needs urgent attention’ in-tray seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

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