This is indeed a timely debate – with the European Parliament elections rapidly approaching, we are in the final straight when it comes to taking measures to ensure they are secure. We have heard already about some of the things we are doing – briefly to recap, over the last six months or so, we have brought together Member State electoral commissions and cybersecurity and data protection experts in the reinforced election cooperation network to share best practices and promote cooperation with a view to better securing our elections.
We have set up a Rapid Alert System among the EU institutions and Member States in order to spot and tackle coordinated disinformation campaigns.
We have worked with this House, with MEPs and political parties to raise awareness around the transparency of political advertising online as well as the security and resilience of electoral systems, including at a workshop in the European Parliament together with you, Chair.
Earlier this month, we carried out a table-top cybersecurity election exercise together with the European Parliament, Member States and the EU cybersecurity agency, ENISA, to check how cybersecure we were, which we opened together with your colleague, European Parliament Vice-President Rainer Wieland.
And we have seen the big internet platforms sign up to the Code of Practice on Disinformation last autumn, which was reinforced by the publication of our Action Plan against Disinformation in December.
Under the Code of Practice and the Action Plan, the platforms have been reporting month by month on their progress to tackle disinformation, particularly political disinformation. We recognise that there has indeed been progress. But those reports have been patchy, and they continue to show that at least in some areas, efforts are lacking.
While some credible progress has been made in the area of political ad transparency, platforms still need to improve independent scrutiny through better access for fact checkers, researchers and civil society to the data they need – we don’t want the platforms to be marking their own homework.
We want to see greater action against fake accounts and bots.
And we need to see more quick and prominent corrections, for example through a pilot programme of the Correct the Record initiative being advocated by a broad civil society coalition.
We have now received the latest reports from the platforms, covering the month of March, and will publish our assessment of those reports in the coming days. This represents an opportunity for a final push in areas where we can realistically still have a meaningful impact in the fight against disinformation before the European Parliament elections.
At first sight, the latest reports do indeed suggest further progress has been made – for example in terms of transparency for political ads as well as ads in general – but there are still some outstanding issues.
Finally, the Member State computer security incident response teams (CSIRTs) will take part in a further exercise on election cybersecurity integrity in mid-May; perhaps the last chance to test how robust our cybersecurity measures actually are in the run up to the elections.
One of the outstanding issues that we dealing with, in particular with Facebook, is their decision not to permit cross-border political advertising. I know that this has raised concerns in this House. As President Juncker said in his exchange of letters with President Tajani, this was a decision that was made by Facebook alone. There is nothing in the Code of Practice that limits political advertising to advertisers residing only in a given Member State. Obviously it is up to Facebook to respect the law, and it is up to them to decide how they do so. And in this case, the decision they have taken, the interpretation that they have given to respecting national electoral rules, has raised concerns about the ability of EU Institutions and bodies and European-wide political parties to communicate effectively in the run up to the European Parliament elections.
We discussed this in the Conference of Presidents last week, and I’m glad to say that the Secretaries-General of this Institution, the Council and the Commission have now written to Facebook setting out again our concerns very clearly and asking that Facebook reconsider their approach in this area as a matter of urgency.
We will have an opportunity to address these concerns directly with Facebook at an upcoming meeting.
The issue of election security will not disappear after 26 May. Elections continue – indeed, there is an election somewhere in Europe almost every week. And so we need to continue our efforts to protect elections and our political lives in this digital age.
This process will include a discussion at the European Council in June on an initial assessment of how the European Parliament elections have gone and any lessons learned, on the basis of a report prepared by the Presidency, the Commission and the High Representative, which will be an opportunity to look ahead and establish a strategy for the future
And depending on what happens between now and the end of May, we should discuss how to react, learn the lessons and take the necessary steps for the future.
We will also review the Code of Practice later in the year and look again at whether we need to reinforce transparency around the activity of online platforms in this political space.
I look forward to today’s debate – this is not a challenge of just the next few weeks. We need to maintain our current push for immediate action, but we also need to look to the future to ensure our democratic processes remain as robust as we need them to be.
Thank you for this debate. I would like to respond on two points if I may.
First of all, there have been a number of suggestions that in some way the work we are doing to tackle disinformation is against free speech, that in some way it amounts to censorship. I want to be absolutely clear about this – we have never suggested, and we will never suggest, that it is the responsibility of someone, whether a public authority or the private sector, to judge if a piece of political speech or a piece of political information is true or false; good or bad.
The measures that we are seeking to promote through the Code are measures to promote greater transparency around political debate and political speech; greater transparency around the provenance of particular pieces of information – where does it come from? – so that we as citizens can be better equipped to assess that information and form our own judgements about it.
That is what is involved in the measures we are promoting through the Code: to have greater transparency around political adverts and sponsored content, to tackle the problem of bots and fake accounts, to use fact checkers more effectively, to have that independent scrutiny that many of you have spoken about so that we know what is happening on these social media platforms, and to have effective corrections when some piece of demonstrable disinformation has been circulated.
For me, that is the essence of defending free speech and free debate, and it is as far away as you can be from any sense of censorship.
Second, I would like to respond on the importance of our cyber resilience – protecting ourselves from cyberattacks and cyber-enabled interference. This is absolutely crucial. It’s why the Cybersecurity Act that you have voted for and supported is so important – the new Cybersecurity Agency and all that goes with it.
But as a number of you have underlined, this needs to be implemented. I can assure you that we will do everything we can from the Commission’s side to follow up the effective implementation of the Cybersecurity Act.
And indeed, I hope that you will also support the cybersecurity competence centres and the research into cybersecurity that is going to underpin our future cyber resilience.
We also have to protect our critical digital infrastructure, the plumbing of our digital lives and of our digital political debate. Which is why it is so important that we now have these measures on FDI screening, that we have measures proposed on the security of 5G networks, so that people understand the importance not just of making judgements about digital infrastructure on the basis of price and cost, but also integrating security into those decisions.
Abraham Lincoln said “elections belong to the people, it’s their decision.” We need to make sure it stays that way.