How to protect and strengthen the vigilance of citizens while preserving freedom of expression? To meet this challenge, UK and EU lawmakers have very different responses.
Presidential elections, Brexit, Covid… Each major electoral event, each major societal debate is now accompanied by its share of disinformation, sometimes fueled by hostile states with colossal resources. If civil society, the educational world, the media and Tech companies are mobilizing to fight against false information and offer prevention tools, this essential work remains insufficient to respond to all the dangers of our digital world: cyberbullying , terrorist propaganda, child pornography content and, in general, the dissemination of illicit and hateful content. The public authorities, the only actor with the necessary weight to regulate the major platforms, have an essential role to play in the direct fight against professional disinformators and in the creation of a favorable framework for civil society initiatives.
“In Europe, the bird will fly according to our European rules”
Under the leadership of Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, the EU has equipped itself with unprecedented means of action to make the Internet safe and transparent. With the Digital Services Act (DSA), the Commission becomes the reference authority for the regulation of major platforms and search engines. Responsible for monitoring them, it has investigative powers and can, for example, request access to their databases or their algorithms and, in the event of non-compliance, impose fines of up to 6% of the global turnover. Deterrent… Sign of the confidence shown by the European commissioner, when Elon Musk formalized the takeover of Twitter with a provocative message “the bird is freed”, Thierry Breton retorted: “In Europe, the bird will fly according to our rules Europeans. If the future will tell the effectiveness of the DSA, it is clear that the 27 were united in its preparation and adoption.
The Online Safety Bill, a Frankenstein Law?
Meanwhile, London still seems mired in tinkering with its own Online Safety Bill (OSB). UK attempts to regulate the internet began in earnest under Theresa May. The Conservatives’ manifesto during the June 2017 general election promised that “rules online should mirror those that govern our lives offline”, but the topic has not moved forward, likely a victim of Brexit and more pressing matters.
It was under Boris Johnson, in 2019, that a version of the legislation began to make its way through parliament. The objective was to protect the most vulnerable by tackling “legal but harmful content” which would, for example, make it illegal to send a message causing “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress. But this approach has come up against numerous challenges from the technology industry and defenders of a certain idea of freedom of expression, a particularly politically sensitive subject across the Channel.
The new bill was introduced in the House of Commons in December 2022, without the controversial measure and whose aim is now to “help protect children, hold social media companies to account and give users a greater say in what they see on the Internet”. Faced with criticism of the nebulous and watered-down nature of the project, the Secretary of State called on citizens to ask their questions, which the government will answer on its website.
A victim of the instability that has characterized the political landscape since Brexit, the British regulatory project contained from the outset the seeds of a paralyzing quarrel, while the EU was able to circumvent the problem by first focusing its project on the purely illegal content (child pornography, terrorist propaganda, etc.). On legal but harmful content, the EU has incorporated mandatory risk assessment and audits for tech giants so they can be held accountable for potential wrongdoing such as massive disinformation campaigns.
For Chris Stokel-Walker of the Guardian, the British bill is “a beacon of mediocrity” “which has gone from its original intention – to focus on online abuse and harassment – to a call for ‘freedom of expression’. The journalist, who denounces a political hodgepodge of meaningless competing interests, judges that the project has become a Frankenstein-type legislative monster. Where Europe managed to quickly introduce “logical, intelligent and robust regulation”, providing a snub to Brexiters who criticized the slowness of European bureaucracy. Finally, he points to the direct dialogue between Thierry Breton and Elon Musk, while a letter from the British Business Secretary, Grant Shapp, to the Tech magnate was completely ignored.
Whatever the legislative future of the OSB and the results of the DSA, the two entities face the same issues, the same enemies. We bet that a necessary rapprochement will eventually take place. Disinformation specialists who seek to destabilize democracies, as well as cybercriminals, have found a vast territory which knows absolutely no borders. It is in the interest of the EU and the UK not to leave huge gaps, when the fight is already fierce.
This article is originally published on journaldunet.com