Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to open this plenary session. You've discussed today about resilient and inclusive democracy and the challenges it faces today, including the democratic governance and the role of civil society in it.
I would like to focus on a particular topic which goes to the basic roots of our democracy: elections. We are less than six months away from the moment when EU citizens will go to the polls to vote for the next European Parliament. And besides these European elections there are more than 20 other elections at national level that will happen across Europe by 2020.
And unfortunately these elections will not be business as usual as these elections will be under a new threat. Barely a week goes by without some fresh example of coordinated, deliberate efforts to undermine elections and democracy institutions through cyber-attacks, disinformation or online manipulation - driven by third countries or private interests.
This is serious as it can affect citizens confidence in our democratic system and as it challenges our capability to counter these forms of attacks.
And our new data sheds some light on this. The Eurobarometer survey which we just published shows that about 70% citizens have faith in free and fair elections. In other words, 3 out of every 10 Europeans, and in some countries even more than that, lack confidence in the very basis of our democracy.
Citizens also expressed a high level of concerns on cyberattacks (61%), foreign actors and criminal groups influencing elections covertly (59%), the final result of an election being manipulated (56%) or votes being bought or sold (55%). Citizens are concerned and we cannot be complacent.
Citizens have followed the manipulation debates around the US presidential elections, the Brexit referendum or the recent Russian hacking scandals across Europe.
By now we know enough about the scale of dangers stemming from bad actors, domestic or foreign to ring the alarm bells.
The threat for democracy is wider than just the attempt to swing elections. The virtue of democracy is also about open and public debate, so everyone can be heard and everyone can respond.
But digital tools can be abused to amplify algorithmic segregation, to exploit our digital footprint, and to create bubbles fostering fear and prejudice.
The motivation for doing so varies.
It could be a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of an election. And I believe we should not be naive about this. For instance Russia is likely to try and influence our elections.
It could be a financial motive, as fake news and click bites can bring profits.
Or it could be simply recklessness, where actors pursue their own political agenda and ignore the consequences of their misuse of the digital environment. I am thinking of some of the anti-democratic or deliberately misleading narratives in populist campaigns lately.
I spent almost half of my life in a communist Czechoslovakia and I learnt my lessons about political manipulation and fake news.
When shortly after the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica case this Spring - which was a real wake-up call - I met the electoral authorities of Member States to talk about our preparedness for the 2019 elections I got a bit nervous. Because I didn’t recognise the same sense of urgency and awareness of the problems. We must engage and prepare. Our role should me to minimise the risks.
It is against this background that the Commission adopted measures on securing free and fair elections:
The guidance on the application of Union data protection law in the electoral context, a targeted legislative amendment to tighten the rules on European political party funding and a Recommendation to secure free and fair elections.
The latter, among others, calls on Member States to establish electoral cooperation networks to monitor and enforce rules related to online activities relevant to the electoral context.
We have rules for offline electoral campaigns but the new reality of online campaigns is still the Wild West without transparency for instance on the financing of political advertising and without silence periods. We have to ensure that the online rules also offline.
Citizens want us to make this happen – 76% of respondents to today’s Eurobarometer want authorities to ensure that the rules which apply to the traditional media also apply online. 81% want online platforms to be transparent about political advertising, 80% want them to be transparent about the amount of money they receive from political parties and campaign groups and about the support they give to them.
To address disinformation, the Commission requested IT platforms to committ to an EU-wide Code of Practice on Disinformation. This is a first positive outcome. Other steps are being taken and we are now preparing an Action plan on disinformation, to set out the next steps in efforts to address disinformation appropriately.
European citizens need to be able to vote with a full understanding of the political choices they have. This is our aim. Free choice for citizens. This requires awareness of the threats and more transparency in our political process. Action is needed.
I know that today and tomorrow we will hear about ways to use digital tools to raise awareness on disinformation and other forms of online electoral manipulation, to enable citizens to accustom themselves to this new digital world and read and view information critically. Other participants will talk about how online services can increase transparency and give citizens more information about the source of information they view, the nature of advertisements and crucially, the political affiliations and policies of the candidates who will be putting themselves up for election. All this is very useful. We will only be able to turn the tide on this if we act together, governments, political parties, private actors and citizens.
Let me conclude that I don't intend to leave a wrong impression here. The online environment is a huge opportunity. It has already revolutionised our society, and has opened up tremendous opportunities for development and economic growth.
The internet has brought unprecedented opportunities for politicians and policymakers to interact with citizens, and for people to join the political debate.
Also, to blame the technology alone for all the recent problems would be to misinterpret the lessons people are trying to send us all over Europe. We must fight back for the trust of the people. But this is for another debate.
Let me wish you a very fruitful discussion.