August Newsletter | Democracy is at stake: time to regulate social media platforms

Democracy is at stake: time to regulate social media platforms

The well-deserved summer break is over. Policy makers, stakeholders and lobbyists are back in action.

Prolonged Covid 19 uncertainty, economic crisis and political instability have further accelerated the decline of the news and media sector. Many of the small and medium sized companies are likely to face a rude and brutal awakening in September/October. Many of them will simply disappear.

In contrast, the latest figures published by tech giants showed them achieving record turnover and profits. They are now more dominant than ever. If there has been any doubt it is clear now that they are essential and systemic facilities.. Not interacting with them in the online world has become de facto impossible.

The success of these giants has been built during the last 20 years on legislation that limited their responsibility. The safe harbor provisions of the e-Commerce Directive of 2000 allowed them to grow and prosper like no one before. And whilst the initial small startups became the biggest and most powerful corporations on the planet, the regulatory framework for these empires didn’t change. They remained less regulated than your local book or newspaper store.

Lawmakers start to realize the devastating effect these companies have on democracy and our societies. They are starting to have a closer look at a variety of possible anti-competitive practices. The EU regulator, for example, investigates whether the App Store or the Google Play Store are breaking competition rules. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Judiciary Antitrust Committee of the US Congress grilled the GAFA CEOs regarding their dominant position and alleged abuse of it. Regulators also realize that the voluntary or collaborative efforts in particular of dominant social media platforms to counter and combat misinformation, hate speech, harmful and illegal matters remain at best shy and hesitant.  

The EU Commission has in the meantime launched two major initiatives aiming to define the way forward. As the e-commerce directive shaped the last 20 years and led to the GAFA mega-companies, the Digital Services Act and the Democracy Action Plan have the potential to shape our European societies for the next 20 years. It is a unique opportunity to decide what Europe stands for and how to support rule of law and media pluralism . The very basic question will be if the exceptional regulatory status of the big tech companies shall be maintained. Is there in 2020 and beyond a valid reason (and if so, which?) to further grant these most powerful players a privileged liability status? Lawmakers will have to answer this question heart and soul. Hopefully, they will be up to the task in a David vs Goliath battle and will not forget the bigger societal picture. The stakes are high.

Marc Sundermann, Senior Fellow Fondation EURACTIV (former EU Representative Bertelsmann)


Hungary: Editor’s Sacking a Blow to Press Freedom 
End Pressure on Media; Respect, Protect Independent Journalism (Human Rights Watch)

The dismissal of Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s biggest independent news website, Index,  has direct consequences on media independence and diversity. Now, Hungary’s media landscape is largely controlled by Orban’s government.

A new threat to press freedom: Lawsuits (Politico)
Lawsuits to limit press freedom by intimidating and silencing journalists are often used by governments and businesses. Hungary and Poland are now the countries where press freedom is at stake. The EU Commission should be more incisive in asking the respect of fundamental rights in these countries, by binding financial aids for coronavirus to the respects of rule of law.

Protests in Bulgaria are also about media freedom (EURACTIV): “The protests in Bulgaria are not only social. They are for basic democratic rights – media freedom and political pluralism, for independent state institutions.” says journalist Maria Stoyanova.

Tech platforms struggle to label state-controlled media (YubaNet)
Twitter announced that it would start labelling some accounts run by media outlets and their top editors as “state-affiliated”. Distinguish propaganda from public services became a central matter in the fight against disinformation, and it is now part of companies’ content moderation policies. 


Fondation EURACTIV has already drafted its answer to the Digital Services Act public consultation, building on a number of publicly available OpEds and Open Letters, mostly available here. Relevant media stakeholders who are interested in seeing this document (before or after the consultation deadline of 8 September) may ask for it at (Christophe Leclercq) or (Marc Sundermann).

Google and Facebook to be forced to share revenue with media in Australia under draft code (The Guardian)
Google, Facebook and other digital platforms could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines if they fail to comply with a news media bargaining code released by Australia’s competition regulator.

After Big Tech’s grilling on Capitol Hill, Brussels could be next (CNBC)
The chiefs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google were grilled by the US Congress amid investigations as to whether these firms have abused their market dominance.”They have a gatekeeper role which means that if they act unchecked, they can also cause significant harm to competition, innovation and ultimately to consumers,” wrote Vestager. More here.

French privacy watchdog opens preliminary investigation into TikTok (EURACTIV)
France’s data privacy watchdog CNIL opened a preliminary investigation into TikTok after it received a complaint.

Facebook funnelling readers towards Covid misinformation (The Guardian)
report found that misinformation websites produce a spike in Facebook’s views. “This suggests that just when citizens needed credible health information the most, and while Facebook was trying to proactively raise the profile of authoritative health institutions on the platform, its algorithm was potentially undermining these efforts” the report said.

Read more on this issue:

 Big Tech’s Domination of Business Reaches New Heights (The New York Times)

– I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible (The New York Times)

-There is no internet freedom without responsibility (ContentCafe)

We Aren’t Holding The Right People Responsible For Cancel Culture (BuzzFeedNews)

DO // Innovative solutions for journalism through Stars4Media

The Stars4Media Pilot Project is a training programme supporting 21 innovative solutions for journalism and bridging together 105 media professionals from 17 countries. This programme is designed to develop the skills of media professionals from diverse profiles (journalism, content marketing, social media management, communications, editing, engineering and business).

This project is fostering cooperation across borders and addressing media organisations’ business needs.To work with media innovators from all over Europe and learn about their Stars4media initiatives, join the community on the Stars4Media LinkedIn Group!

On October 14th, the Stars4media partners are organising the Media4Europe conference: the final event of the first edition of the Stars4Media exchange and training programme, co-funded by the EU. The agenda will include:

  • Stars4Media networking sessions: media innovators participating in the Stars4Media training programme will exchange on best practices and provide feedback

  • Public session and “Stars4Media Awards”: key speakers from EU institutions, the media sector, and policy-makers will react to Stars4media overall findings, and reflect on innovation in the media sector