Davos WEF
Davos WEF

Democracy could have been damaged forever in the last 4 years, EU chief says

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Key Points
  • The images of riots at the U.S. Capitol, the heart of the U.S.' policymaking body, in early January shocked European leaders.
  • They also revived discussions over the role of social media in the spread of disinformation and potential political unrest.
  • Speaking on Tuesday, von der Leyen said: "We must also address the darker sides of the digital world."
European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen addresses European lawmakers on the inauguration of the new President of the United States.
FRANCISCO SECO | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — World leaders are worried that democracy has been damaged forever during Donald Trump's time in office, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

"A year ago, my bilateral talks revolved primarily around the question: Would the U.S. government impose punitive tariffs on European carmakers? Today, a year later, we are worrying about whether democracy itself might have been permanently damaged in the last four years," von der Leyen said during a speech at the Davos Agenda summit.

The images of riots at the U.S. Capitol, the heart of the U.S.' policymaking body, in early January shocked European leaders, and revived discussions over the role of social media in the spread of disinformation and potential political unrest.

In the meantime, House Democrats delivered impeachment charges against the former president to the Senate on Monday evening. Trump is being accused of inciting violence against the U.S. government.

He had pressured former Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the result of the presidential election and repeated that during a rally, after which thousands of supporters marching directly on the Capitol, where the riots then took place. Trump has not taken any responsibility for the unrest that ultimately led to the death of five people.

Twitter and other digital firms decided to ban or impose restrictions on the accounts of the former president in the aftermath of the riots, arguing "the risk of further incitement of violence."

The business model of online platforms has an impact not only on free and fair competition, but also on our democracies.
Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President

Speaking on Tuesday, von der Leyen said: "We must also address the darker sides of the digital world."

"Like for so many of us, the storming of the Capitol came as a shock to me. We are always quick to say: Democracy and values, they are part of our DNA. And that is true. But we must nurture our democracy every day, and defend our institutions against the corrosive power of hate speech, disinformation, fake news and incitement to violence," von der Leyen said.

The European Commission has new laws in the making that would impose stricter controls on digital firms, such as Twitter and Facebook. The legislation, which could be in force within two years, could go as far as requesting these companies to unveil their algorithms — something that they have refused to do for years as it could put their business models at risk.

"The business model of online platforms has an impact not only on free and fair competition, but also on our democracies, our security and on the quality of our information. That is why we need to contain this immense power of the big digital companies," von der Leyen said.

She also asked the new U.S. administration to work with the EU over tech regulation.

Speaking to CNBC last week, von der Leyen said that President Joe Biden and the European Union are "on the same page" when it comes to regulating tech giants.

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Europe and Biden 'on the same page' over tech regulation, EU chief says