Google, Facebook and Twitter have fallen short of their pledges to combat fake news, three months before key European elections, the European Commission said on Thursday.
The European Commission published reports by Facebook, Google and Twitter covering the progress made in January 2019 on their commitments to fight disinformation. These three online platforms are signatories of the Code of Practice against disinformation and have been asked to report monthly on their actions ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
The Commission asked to receive detailed information to monitor progress on the scrutiny of ad placement, transparency of political advertising, closure of fake accounts and marking systems for automated bots. Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, and Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel said in a joint statement:
"The online platforms, which signed the Code of Practice, are rolling out their policies in Europe to support the integrity of elections. This includes better scrutiny of advertisement placements, transparency tools for political advertising, and measures to identify and block inauthentic behaviour on their services.
However, we need to see more progress on the commitments made by online platforms to fight disinformation. Platforms have not provided enough details showing that new policies and tools are being deployed in a timely manner and with sufficient resources across all EU Member States. The reports provide too little information on the actual results of the measures already taken.
Finally, the platforms have failed to identify specific benchmarks that would enable the tracking and measurement of progress in the EU.
We urge Facebook, Google and Twitter to do more across all Member States to help ensure the integrity of the European Parliament elections in May 2019."
According to the signatories' reports, Facebook has not reported on results of the activities undertaken in January with respect to scrutiny of ad placements. It had earlier announced that a pan-EU archive for political and issue advertising will be available in March 2019. The report provides an update on cases of interference from third countries in EU Member States, but does not report on the number of fake accounts removed due to malicious activities targeting specifically the European Union.
Google provided data on actions taken during January to improve scrutiny of ad placements in the EU, divided per Member State. However, the metrics supplied are not specific enough and do not clarify the extent to which the actions were taken to address disinformation or for other reasons (e.g. misleading advertising). Google published a new policy for 'election ads' on 29 January, and will start publishing a Political Ads Transparency Report as soon as advertisers begin to run such ads. Google has not provided evidence of concrete implementation of its policies on integrity of services for the month of January.
Twitter did not provide any metrics on its commitments to improve the scrutiny of ad placements. On political ads transparency, contrary to what was announced in the implementation report in January, Twitter postponed the decision until the February report. On integrity of services, Twitter added five new account sets, comprising numerous accounts in third countries, to its Archive of Potential Foreign Operations, which are publicly available and searchable, but did not report on metrics to measure progress.
The next monthly report, covering the activities done in February, will be published in March 2019. This will allow the European Commission to verify that effective policies to ensure integrity of the electoral processes are in place before the European elections in May 2019.
By the end of 2019, the EC will carry out a comprehensive assessment of the Code's initial 12-month period. Should the results prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further actions, including of a regulatory nature.
Facebook investigation to be completed by summer
Meanwhile, Facebook’s lead regulator in the European Union expects to conclude the first of seven investigations into the company’s use of personal data this summer and the remainder by the end of the year, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner said on Thursday.
The commissioner’s office last year launched three investigations into aspects of a massive cyber attack in which hackers stole login codes that allowed them to access nearly 50 million Facebook accounts, including 3 million in Europe.
Since then it has launched a separate probe into “a large number of other breaches,” including Facebook’s disclosure in December that a bug may have exposed private photos of up to 6.8 million users.
The other probes relate to complaints by users in relation to how Facebook processes personal data.
“We are looking at different aspects of the collection, the transparency and the use of data” at Facebook, Commissioner Helen Dixon told Ireland’s RTE radio in an interview.
“I think the first of those will possibly conclude over the summer - that is our anticipation - and further of the inquiries will conclude in the latter part of the year,” she said.
The commissioner is also probing Facebook subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram as well as Twitter , LinkedIn and Apple in relation to their processing of personal data and the transparency of their data processes.