Picture: 123RF/VALERIY BOCHKAREV
Picture: 123RF/VALERIY BOCHKAREV

Brussels — Alphabet’s Google, Facebook, Twitter have pledged to work together with other tech and advertising companies to fight the spread of "fake news" online in Europe, largely to prevent it from blighting political elections in the region.

The group, an ad-hoc alliance that includes Mozilla and advertising business organisations, presented a code of conduct to the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body. The EU in April called on web platforms and social media firms to present a plan on how to curtail misinformation online or face possible regulation if they fail to do so.

European digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel on Wednesday welcomed the code as a step in the right direction but urged platforms to intensify their efforts in the area, adding the commission would "pay particular attention to its effective implementation".

The commission said it would analyse the first results of the code by the end of the year and could still propose regulations if the results are unsatisfactory.

Russian threat probed

The proposal follows months of pressure from legislators in the US and Europe against tech companies over whether Russians had spread disinformation across the platforms to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit vote.

EU officials are hoping to prevent or minimise a repeat of the problem ahead of EU elections next spring. Tech companies, which have come under fire by conservatives in the US for bias, say they are trying to tackle the problem in a way that does not restrict freedom of expression.

The social media and internet companies also are being scrutinised by regulators and legislators in the US and EU over the way they handle users’ data.

Under the new plan, the firms will invest in products, technologies and programs that help people in Europe make informed decisions when they encounter online news that could be false; prioritise authentic information in search rankings or news feeds; and make diverse perspectives more visible. As part of the agreement, the companies said they would support efforts to develop indicators of trustworthiness in collaboration with news organisations.

The group also committed to policies that aim to prevent advertising around the spread of misinformation, for instance, by restricting advertising services for parties that consistently misrepresent themselves online. The companies also agreed, in certain circumstances, to help advertisers monitor placement of adverts and choose where ads get placed.

A "sounding board" group that includes news, media and consumer associations, and which was assigned to assess the tech firms’ action plan, said the code contained "no clear and meaningful commitments, no measurable objectives, hence no possibility to monitor process" and called on the EU to closely monitor the situation.

In the code of conduct, the tech firms said they would publish annual reports, to be submitted to an independent third party for review, about their work to tackle fake news. The voluntary commitments would be open to other companies to sign and could be updated in the future.

The large tech firms have already rolled out measures with the aim of tackling misinformation on their platforms and providing more transparency around the political nature of certain ads.

Google and Facebook, for instance, forbid fake accounts or false claims by a group or business about their identity and demote content deemed to be misinformation. Twitter also bans impersonation and forbids developers from using automated bots to spam users or send them unsolicited messages.

Bloomberg