Von der Leyen: big tech firms need to be reined in despite Trump's exit

Internet giants that spread hate speech and conspiracy theories should face ‘democratic limits’, says European commission president

The end of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House was celebrated by the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, as she warned that the former US president’s rise highlighted the need to confront the internet giants who helped him spread “conspiracy theories and fake news”.

The European commission president spoke of her relief at Trump’s departure, but warned that the outgoing leader’s movement still existed, and that the digital platforms used to spread hate needed to be tackled.

The deaths of five people including a police officer on Capitol Hill were said to be evidence of how “words incite action”, she said, while noting that the murder of the British MP Jo Cox during the “torrid days” leading to the Brexit referendum and the storming of the Reichstag last August illustrated showed that Europe was not immune to the same forces.

Von der Leyen said that in Europe as well as the US, there were people who “feel disadvantaged and are very angry … who subscribe to rampant conspiracy theories, which are often a confused mixture of completely abstruse fantasies”.

Grievances needed to be listened to and addressed by the continent’s political leaders, she said, but it may not be possible to dissuade everyone from believing “fake news” and its dissemination needed to be tackled at source.

Von der Leyen said the experience of recent years showed it was time for the tech giants to face a reckoning, with “democratic limits” imposed on their “untrammelled and uncontrolled political power”.

The commission proposed legislation in December to make hate speech illegal online as well as offline and for internet companies be held responsible for the content on their platforms.

Large tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter would face fines of up to 6% of their turnover should they fail to police their content or share the appropriate data with authorities on how they moderate illegal content.

“The relief that many of us are feeling about the change of administration in Washington should not blind us to the fact that, although Donald Trump’s presidency may be history in just a few hours, his movement will not,” Von der Leyen said in a speech to the European parliament. “More than 70 million Americans voted for him in the election. Just a few days ago, several hundred of them stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy.

“The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy. We should take these images from the USA as a sobering warning.”

The EU should embrace technological progress and innovation, she said, but the bloc should not allow those who run the major internet players to go unchallenged about their powerful positions to shape people’s lives.

“In a world in which polarising opinions are most likely to be heard, it is a short step from perverse conspiracy theories to the death of police officers,” she said. “Unfortunately, the storming of Capitol Hill showed us just how true that is.”

Echoing the concerns of the British government, Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, said Twitter’s decision to prohibit Trump from its platform following the invasion of Capitol Hill had also highlighted the need to rein in the power of the most powerful actors on the internet.

She said: “This point is also important to me: no matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules. It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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