EU strengthens its code of practice to tackle online disinformation

The European Union has unveiled plans to strengthen its four-year-old code of practice against online disinformation.

The European Commission announced on Thursday that more tech companies — beyond Meta, Google, TikTok, Twitter and Microsoft — will need to introduce measures to prevent anyone from profiting from false online claims.

Organisations that agree to the terms are banned from showing ads next to any content containing disinformation.

They also pledge to be more transparent on political ads, take action against “bot accounts” and give users tools to flag any disinformation they see.

More than 30 companies and groups — including Twitch, Vimeo, and Clubhouse — have now signed up to the code, twice as many as last year.

The new EU code was presented to the European Parliament on Thursday.

EU leaders have expressed concern about disinformation flourishing online during the COVID-19 pandemic and Russian propaganda amid the war in Ukraine.

Disinformation “is a growing problem in the EU, and we really have to take stronger measures,” Commission Vice President Vera Jourova told reporters in Brussels.

Jourova said the updated code no longer relies on platform self-regulation and comes at a time when “we see attacks on democracy more broadly”.

While it does not introduce any penalties, the EU code is supported by the upcoming Digital Services Act, which will also force tech companies to address the spread of online disinformation or face heavy fines of 6% of their global turnover.

“Disinformation is a form of invasion of our digital space, with tangible impact on our daily lives,” said Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner for Internal Markets.

“Online platforms need to act much stronger, especially on the issue of funding. Spreading disinformation should not bring a single euro to anyone.”

Some companies — such as Apple and Amazon — have still not signed up to the EU Code of Practice, as well as Telegram, where Russian government disinformation is rampant.

Fact-checking organisations have also argued that the new code will not result in substantial changes in the way big tech companies act.

“This Code is a global first, in large part because civil society stepped in to push for greater ambition,” said Luca Nicotra, Campaign Director at Avaaz.

“But if platforms now don’t step up their actions, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” he added in a press release.

“This is why we need monitoring with teeth, from the EU Commission, that boldly flags platform failures. Otherwise, this Code could become just a cheap way to avoid the fines they could face under the Digital Services Act.”

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