Brussels is preparing to crack down on social media companies who have been accused of spreading "fake news", issuing a stark warning that scandals such as the Facebook data leak threaten to "subvert our democratic systems".
The European Commission fears that next year's elections to the European Parliament are vulnerable to mass eurosceptic online "disinformation". Its concern sharpened after a whistleblower alleged that Cambridge Analytica gathered personal information from up to 50m Facebook users and used it to target voters in the US presidential election. Cambridge Analytica has denied using Facebook data in its modelling.
Julian King, European commissioner for security, is demanding a "clear game plan" for how social media companies can operate during sensitive election periods — starting with European Parliament polls in May 2019.
A letter from Sir Julian to Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for the digital economy, calls for more transparency on the internal algorithms that internet platforms use to promote stories, limits on the "harvesting" of personal information for political purposes, and disclosure by tech companies of who funds "sponsored content" on their websites.
Sir Julian proposes a "more binding approach" than self-regulation, including "clearly and carefully defined performance indicators".
His proposals have backing from the other commissioners who are drawing up the EU's first policy on how to fight "online disinformation" to be published later this month.
The Cambridge Analytica revelations have turbo-charged the debate, with EU officials pushing for stronger guidance on how platforms should behave to safeguard democracy.
The "psychometric targeting activities" such as those of Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis company, are just a "preview of the profoundly disturbing effects such disinformation could have on the functioning of liberal democracies", Sir Julian wrote in the letter dated March 19.
"It is clear that the cyber-security threat we are facing is changing from one primarily targeting systems to one that is also increasingly about deploying cyber means to manipulate behaviour, deepen societal divides, subvert our democratic systems and raise questions about our democratic institutions," the letter adds.
Brussels' warning comes as a number of EU member states are drawing up "anti-fake news laws" amid a host of allegations over Russian interference in European elections in the past year.
France is preparing legislation to allow its judges to remove and block false viral content during national election campaigns. Emmanuel Macron, French president, has railed against the "defamatory untruths" and "deceitful propaganda" of Kremlin-backed media organisations such as RT and Sputnik, which both have French-language websites.
Earlier this year, Germany introduced it first "hate speech law" that forces platforms to quickly remove terrorist content, xenophobia and fake news or face fines of up to €50m.
EU officials are worried that next year's European elections will be hijacked by populist and eurosceptic forces using platforms to spread conspiracy theories, false news and doctored videos.
An EU-wide survey last month found that more than a third of European citizens came across fake news every day, with 83 per cent saying it was a threat to democracy, according to Eurobarometer.
But critics of the commission's approach say it could backfire if the EU ends up shutting down legitimate debate — or is successfully portrayed by its opponents as doing so.
Marietje Schaake, a liberal European Parliament member who focuses on digital governance, said there was a strong argument for tougher disclosure rules for "black box" algorithms and website owners whose anonymity meant they had "zero accountability". But she also warned of the potential for the wider online crackdown to backfire if it was seen an attempt by the EU to curb criticism. "It does put a spotlight on speech," she said. "You have to wonder if that's something desirable."
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