We rely on technology to an unparalleled extent – for the news we read, for staying in touch, for a multitude of everyday tasks. The internet has provided us with incredible opportunities; but, as is becoming ever more apparent, it also has a flip – darker - side.
We face a range of cyber and cyber enabled threats. The spread of deliberate disinformation – Fake News – to influence and manipulate behaviour, to sow doubt and division, is a real threat to the cohesion and stability of our societies and our democratic institutions.
And when such manipulation is attempted by foreign actors it can have serious potential consequences for our security. For example, Russian military doctrine explicitly recognises information warfare as one of its domains.
When it comes to disinformation online, we are effectively in a kind of war. But it is a new kind of combat, with no rules of engagement.
Disinformation as such is far from new; it stretches back centuries. But the digital tools that exist today enable it to spread on a scale and at a speed not seen before, with an unprecedented degree of intrusion.
And while we are starting to wake up to the enormous potential impact disinformation and Fake News can have on our everyday lives, there is still a lack of understanding about how it works, and what we can do about it.
Over 80% of Europeans see Fake News as a problem for democracy. In some surveys 85% see it as a particular problem in their country. At the same time, over 60% don't realise their social networks can affect the news they see. Almost 50% are unaware that information they enter on websites and social media can help target ads.
To respond to this challenge, we need to support and strengthen legitimate and independent sources of information, improve media literacy and encourage greater critical thinking. I believe the actions outlined in today's Communication will help us achieve that.
But we also need to think about the short term, especially with the European elections next May coming up. Again, we are proposing today measures designed to have a short term effect.
Tackling this threat is everyone's responsibility – including, indeed especially, internet platforms who make so much money from our online lives. And today's proposals send them a clear message – they have a key role to play in countering disinformation, and we hope to see significant progress in the next few months. While the voluntary process we are putting forward today is, we believe, the quickest and most efficient way to achieve such progress, we will consider our options again if it is found wanting.
Next month's entry into force of the new EU data protection rules, the GDPR, will considerably reinforce EU citizens' protection against unauthorised processing and sharing of data, and will give them more tools to protect their rights and authorities more powers to enforce them.
But we also need to squeeze the space malicious actors currently employ to spread disinformation, by urgently reinforcing transparency, traceability and accountability online. Citizens should be able to know where the information they are seeing online comes from, who is funding it, and why it is being presented to them, so that they can make an informed decision about whether to take it at face value.
The new code of practice for platforms should make them more accountable, and should bring about greater transparency around adverts and sponsored content; it should crack down on bots and fake accounts; it should reduce the visibility of disinformation while promoting more trustworthy content; and it should help users understand why they are shown certain content by clarifying how algorithms work – as well as preventing the misuse of mined user data as seen in the Cambridge Analytica case.
The lack of traceability which currently exists online can help and encourage disinformation campaigns. The measures we are presenting today are aimed at combatting this, by pressing for means of verification, identification and authentication to help build greater trust online – whether it's the IPv6 protocol or the development of real-name online registration, so-called "verified pseudonymity".
Too often it is argued that we cannot boost accountability and transparency online without resorting to some kind of censorship. But in practice there is a large gap between doing nothing, accepting the status quo, and censorship, let alone 1984-style Ministries of Truth. We are not talking today about censoring content or limiting speech. We are reinforcing transparency, traceability and accountability.
We can and we should take steps to tackle the cyber threats to our digital democracies, without undermining our core values of free speech and critical debate. And indeed, the proposals we have presented today will help us start down this path in Europe.