The European Union’s executive body has signed up tech platforms and ad industry players to a voluntary Code of Practice aimed at trying to do something about the spread of disinformation online.
Something, just not anything too specifically quantifiable.
According to the Commission, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, some additional members of the EDIMA trade association, plus unnamed advertising groups are among those that have signed up to the self-regulatory code, which will apply in a month’s time.
Signatories have committed to taking not exactly prescribed actions in the following five areas:
- Disrupting advertising revenues of certain accounts and websites that spread disinformation;
- Making political advertising and issue based advertising more transparent;
- Addressing the issue of fake accounts and online bots;
- Empowering consumers to report disinformation and access different news sources, while improving the visibility and findability of authoritative content;
- Empowering the research community to monitor online disinformation through privacy-compliant access to the platforms’ data.
Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for digital economy and society, described the Code as a first “important” step in tackling disinformation. And one she said will be reviewed by the end of the year to see how (or, well, whether) it’s functioning, with the door left open for additional steps to be taken if not. So in theory legislation remains a future possibility.
“This is the first time that the industry has agreed on a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation worldwide, on a voluntary basis,” she said in a statement. “The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetisation of purveyors of disinformation, and we welcome this.
“These actions should contribute to a fast and measurable reduction of online disinformation. To this end, the Commission will pay particular attention to its effective implementation.”
“I urge online platforms and the advertising industry to immediately start implementing the actions agreed in the Code of Practice to achieve significant progress and measurable results in the coming months,” she added. “I also expect more and more online platforms, advertising companies and advertisers to adhere to the Code of Practice, and I encourage everyone to make their utmost to put their commitments into practice to fight disinformation.”
Earlier this year a report by an expert group established by the Commission to help shape its response to the so-called ‘fake news’ crisis, called for more transparency from online platform, as well as urgent investment in media and information literacy education to empower journalists and foster a diverse and sustainable news media ecosystem.
Safe to say, no one has suggested there’s any kind of quick fix for the Internet enabling the accelerated spread of nonsense and lies.
Including the Commission’s own expert group, which offered an assorted pick’n’mix of ideas — set over various and some not-at-all-instant-fix timeframes.
Though the group was called out for failing to interrogate evidence around the role of behavioral advertising in the dissemination of fake news — which has arguably been piling up. (Certainly its potential to act as a disinformation nexus has been amply illustrated by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, to name one recent example.)
The Commission is not doing any better on that front, either.
The executive has been working on formulating its response to what its expert group suggested should be referred to as ‘disinformation’ (i.e. rather than the politicized ‘fake news’ moniker) for more than a year now — after the European parliament adopted a Resolution, in June 2017, calling on it to examine the issue and look at existing laws and possible legislative interventions.
Elections for the European parliament are due next spring and MEPs are clearly concerned about the risk of interference. So the unelected Commission is feeling the elected parliament’s push here.
Disinformation — aka “verifiably false or misleading information” created and spread for economic gain and/or to deceive the public, and which “may cause public harm” such as “threats to democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods such as the protection of EU citizens’ health, the environment or security”, as the Commission’s new Code of Practice defines it — is clearly a slippery policy target.
And online multiple players are implicated and involved in its spread.
But so too are multiple, powerful, well resourced adtech players incentivized to push to avoid any political disruption to their lucrative people-targeting business models.
In the Commission’s voluntary Code of Practice signatories merely commit to recognizing their role in “contributing to solutions to the challenge posed by disinformation”.
“The Signatories recognise and agree with the Commission’s conclusions that “the exposure of citizens to large scale Disinformation, including misleading or outright false information, is a major challenge for Europe. Our open democratic societies depend on public debates that allow well-informed citizens to express their will through free and fair political processes,” runs the preamble.
“[T]he Signatories are mindful of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to an open Internet, and the delicate balance which any efforts to limit the spread and impact of otherwise lawful content must strike.
“In recognition that the dissemination of Disinformation has many facets and is facilitated by and impacts a very broad segment of actors in the ecosystem, all stakeholders have roles to play in countering the spread of Disinformation.”
“Misleading advertising” is explicitly excluded from the scope of the code — which also presumably helped the Commission convince the ad industry to sign up to it.
Though that further risks muddying the waters of the effort, given that social media advertising has been the high-powered vehicle of choice for malicious misinformation muck-spreaders (such as Kremlin-backed agents of societal division).
The Commission is presumably trying to split the hairs of maliciously misleading fake ads (still bad because they’re not actually ads but malicious pretenders) and good old fashioned ‘misleading advertising’, though — which will continue to be dealt with under existing ad codes and standards.
Also excluded from the Code: “Clearly identified partisan news and commentary”. So purveyors of hyper biased political commentary are not intended to get scooped up here, either.
Though again, plenty of Kremlin-generated disinformation agents have masqueraded as partisan news and commentary pundits, and from all sides of the political spectrum.
Hence, we must again assume, the Commission including the requirement to exclude this type of content where it’s “clearly identified”. Whatever that means.
Among the various ‘commitments’ tech giants and ad firms are agreeing to here are plenty of firmly fudgey sounding statements that call for a degree of effort from the undersigned. But without ever setting out explicitly how such effort will be measured or quantified.
- The Signatories recognise that all parties involved in the buying and selling of online advertising and the provision of advertising-related services need to work together to improve transparency across the online advertising ecosystem and thereby to effectively scrutinise, control and limit the placement of advertising on accounts and websites belonging to purveyors of Disinformation.
- Relevant Signatories commit to use reasonable efforts towards devising approaches to publicly disclose “issue-based advertising”. Such efforts will include the development of a working definition of “issue-based advertising” which does not limit reporting on political discussion and the publishing of political opinion and excludes commercial advertising.
- Relevant Signatories commit to invest in features and tools that make it easier for people to find diverse perspectives about topics of public interest.
Nor does the code exactly nail down the terms it’s using to set goals — raising tricky and even existential questions like who defines what’s “relevant, authentic, and authoritative” where information is concerned?
Which is really the core of the disinformation problem.
And also not an easy question for tech giants — which have sold their vast content distribution farms as neutral ‘platforms’ — to start to approach, let alone tackle. Hence their leaning, so heavily, on third party fact-checkers to try to outsource their lack of any editorial values. Because without editorial values there’s no compass; and without a compass how can you judge the direction of tonal travel?
And so we end up with very vague suggestions in the code like:
- Relevant Signatories should invest in technological means to prioritize relevant, authentic, and authoritative information where appropriate in search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels
Only slightly less vague and woolly is a commitment that signatories will “put in place clear policies regarding identity and the misuse of automated bots” on the signatories’ services, and “enforce these policies within the EU”. (So presumably not globally, despite disinformation being able to wreak havoc everywhere.)
Though here the code only points to some suggestive measures that could be used to do that — and which are set out in a separate annex. This boils down to a list of some very, very broad-brush “best practice principles” (such as “follow the money”; develop “solutions to increase transparency”; and “encourage research into disinformation”… ).
And set alongside that uninspiringly obvious list is another — of some current policy steps being undertaken by the undersigned to combat fake accounts and content — as if they’re already meeting the code’s expectations… so, er…
Unsurprisingly, the Commission’s first bite at ‘fake news’ has attracted some biting criticism for being unmeasurably weak sauce.
A group of media advisors — including the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, the European Broadcasting Union, the European Federation of Journalists and International Fact-Checking Network, and several academics — are among the first critics.
Reuters reports them complaining that signatories have not offered measurable objectives to monitor the implementation. “The platforms, despite their best efforts, have not been able to deliver a code of practice within the accepted meaning of effective and accountable self-regulation,” it quotes the group as saying.
Disinformation may be a tough, multi-pronged, multi-dimensional problem but few would try to argue that an overly dilute solution will deliver anything at all — well, unless it’s kicking the can down the road that you’re really after.
The Commission doesn’t even seem to know exactly what the undersigned have agreed to do as a first step, with the commissioner saying she’ll meet signatories “in the coming weeks to discuss the specific procedures and policies that they are adopting to make the Code a reality”. So double er… !
The code also only envisages signatories meeting annually to discuss how things are going. So no pressure for regular collaborative moots vis-a-vis tackling things like botnets spreading malicious disinformation then. Not unless the undersigned really, really want to.
Which seems unlikely, given how their business models tend to benefit from engagement — and disinformation-fuelled outrage has shown itself to be a very potent fuel on that front.
As part of the code, these adtech giants have at least technically agreed to make information available to the Commission on request — and generally to co-operate with its efforts to assess how/whether the code is working.
So, if public pressure on the issue continues to ramp up, the Commission does at least have a route to ask for relevant data from platforms that could, in theory, be used to feed a regulation that’s worth the paper it’s written on.
Until then, there’s nothing much to see here.
Attempting to put a more positive spin on things is Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who was one of the members of the Commission’s expert group.
He’s tweeted that he sees three “potentially major accomplishments” — namely that signatories commit to bot detection and identification by promising to “establish clear marking systems and rules for bots to ensure their activities cannot be confused with human interactions”; that they will provide “an annual account of their work to counter Disinformation in the form of a publicly available report reviewable by a third party”; and “prohibit or discourage good faith research into Disinformation and political advertising on their platforms”.
But, really, if platforms agreeing not to actively impede good faith research in this area is your bar for progress it’s hard to conclude that it’s being set disturbingly low.