It is not about limiting the freedom of the Internet but about developing and providing tools that will help people regain information sovereignty. We need new transparency laws that would limit a fatal impact of obscure online bots.

We already know the threat of misinformation, which is reflected in the fact that over 70 per cent of Europeans fear the effects. When facts themselves become the focus of a massive, coordinated attack, not only political parties but our entire lifestyle are at risk.

Interestingly, the world of advertising is more aware of these phenomena than the media. Our economic model – based on trust in brands and personal or online recommendations – has been undergoing a parallel attack often carried out using the same methods as those witnessed in election campaigns.

As Lenin rightly predicted, for the “free” world to fall politically, capitalism must first fall. So far, however, our system has not fallen, and it will not if we defend ourselves effectively.

Therefore, the EU needs a new strategy to fight bots and trolling. Democratic society must have not only legal possibilities, but also technological tools to defend against disinformation. The recent issue of “Res Publica” recommends that the priorities for the new EU Parliament and the European Commission should be to work on specific provisions guaranteeing the transparency of Internet traffic.

Manufacturing in the digital era

The Internet is not transparent enough about whether we have to deal with information posted by real people or automated campaigns run by bots and trolls on servers of media or commercial platforms.

Sometime it is only the law which helps us distinguish facts from falsehoods, even in the world of technology. All it took was the simple wording in German law that threatened with severe financial penalties the publishing of false information, and the world’s largest social media platform reacted, hiring a large number of editors who carefully screen false accounts and content.

It is ironic that the kings of the Internet must resort to human intelligence. Since these companies invented the algorithms that enable them to drive traffic on the web – and thus creating advertising revenues – it should be relatively easy for them to develop appropriate algorithms that will catch malicious bots and organised troll groups. Nevertheless, there are companies that are able to do it for them.

The Internet is not a Pandora’s box, the opening of which causes the unavailing of numerous negative consequences. So, it is not about limiting the freedom of the Internet, but about developing and providing tools that will help people regain their information sovereignty, that is they will not be dependent or vulnerable to obscure bots.

If we do not defend our freedom on the Internet, we will have to close it. Russia is already preparing a plan to cut off its society from the network, motivated by plans to defend its independence.

European sovereignty

Although the digital age was to bring an end to archaic concepts with globalisation, some of them are returning to the public debate with redoubled power.

For several years, the concept of sovereignty has been experiencing a renaissance, transformed by the most ardent critics of globalisation; in Poland, the main detractors have been the ruling PiS party and those even further to the right.

It is all the more surprising that one of the last reports of the European Commission refers to this concept, but in a particular perspective.

In the March report titled Towards European Media Sovereignty, 14 recommendations were prepared for the Vice-President of the European Commission, Andrus Ansip, covering everything relating to the state of media independence of the EU.

Paul Nemitz

In order for the media to defend itself against the pressure of technologically advanced competition, including influence from anti-democratic states, the EU must set a new course in law which covers the development of advanced technologies. Otherwise, let’s forget about freedom in Europe.

It is recommended that the new multi-annual financial plan includes resources for applied research to foster tech potential of European media.

Much is being said about technological novelties, such as 5G or artificial intelligence, but European democracies must unite their efforts on quite basic issues – ensuring the defence of democratic societies against the hostile impact of disinformation.

Missing recommendation

Res Publica recommends adding one missing recommendation to the 14 from the report. In our analytical work on threats to democracy and consultations with the advertising industry, we were surprised by the consensus of views regarding transparency.

“We need a rule that clearly shows that the messages we receive in a discussion or forum come from man or machine,” says Paul Nemitz, a senior adviser to the European Commission and authority in the field of European law on artificial intelligence.

Timothy Garton Ash gives a practical example of how this would work, describing it as akin to “food labelling” for information: “Even a modest mechanism of transparency as self-identification is a good start.”

And we are facing it – we invite you to read and further discuss how we are to defend our information sovereignty.

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad/Insight and chairman of the Res Publica Foundation

Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

Download the report in PDF

The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.