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European Commission looks to strengthen the Code of Practice on Disinformation

Published on 02 August 2021

The question

What steps are being taken to strengthen the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation (the Code)?

The key takeaway

While the Code has been adopted on a self-regulatory basis by the relevant signatories, the European Commission’s recent guidance (May 2021) shows that sweeping reforms and updates are needed to make it truly effective at halting the flow of disinformation.

The background

The Code is a 2018 regime introduced for online platforms and the advertising sector which outlines a list of commitments for signatories to implement in order to help stop the spread of disinformation. It was designed as a self-regulatory system and signing up is voluntary. 

Under the Code, disinformation is defined as “verifiably false or misleading information” manufactured for monetary gain or to deceive the public, ultimately causing harm. Measures to tackle disinformation under the Code include ensuring transparency on political advertising, the closure of fake accounts and the demonetization of accounts which peddle disinformation.

The Code also includes a section dedicated to assessing its success, which included an initial assessment period of 12 months, culminating in a report published in September 2020. It found that the Code needed to be strengthened and more effectively monitored. The report set out that, while the Code is an effective tool in stemming the flow of disinformation, it fell short in a few key areas, including: inconsistencies in application across platforms and Member States; a lack of uniform definitions; gaps in scope; limited participation; and lack of independent oversight.

The development

In response to the report, the European Commission published a communication in May 2021 setting out guidance on strengthening the Code in order to address its weaknesses. The guidance sets out steps which should be taken by stakeholders to strengthen the Code, including the following three key areas to be addressed: 

  • reinforced commitments - to achieve the Code’s objectives
  • broadening participation - while the current signatories include major online platforms, there is a need to ensure that other established platforms, as well as emerging ones, sign up in order to ensure that a broad and united front is presented against disinformation, and 
  • tailored commitments - in order to facilitate broader participation, the Code should include commitments that are tailored to the specific services provided by certain platforms. The guidance and steps taken by the Commission also aim at evolving the existing Code of Practice towards a co-regulatory instrument foreseen under the Digital Services Act. 

To achieve the above goals, the Commission also set out various steps that should be taken to help strengthen the Code, namely:

  • demonetising disinformation: the Code should strengthen the commitments made by signatories designed to defund the accounts of those disseminating disinformation on their own platforms as well as third party websites
  • commitments to address advertising containing disinformation: under the strengthened Code, the signatories should be committing to design and implement advertising policies that adequately addresses the misuse of their advertising systems via disinformation. Signatories should work to ensure that they have adequate resources to ensure that these policies are properly enforced. Alongside this, signatories should ensure that political advertising comes with sufficient labelling, verification as well as transparency commitments
  • integrity of services: the updated Code should include provisions that provide for enhanced coverage of current and future forms of manipulative behaviour that can be leveraged in order to spread disinformation. This includes: ensuring that the signatories agree on a cross-service understanding of the kinds of manipulative behaviour that may be used by those attempting to spread disinformation; the introduction of expanded and firmer commitments to limit the effectiveness of techniques used to spread disinformation including hack-and-leak operations, account takeovers, impersonation and deep fakes; a commitment to continued re-evaluation and assessment to ensure that the Code can continue to adapt to combat new threats
  • empowering users: the Code’s commitments to empowering users should be expanded and enhanced to cover a broad range of services, including mechanisms by which users can appeal against actions taken by signatories as well as increased protections for children
  • empowering the research and fact-checking community: steps should be taken to strengthen the Code by allowing access to the platforms’ data by the research and fact checking community (whilst also being mindful of any data protection concerns) as well as increasing collaboration, and
  • ongoing monitoring: as mentioned above, the Code should include a robust monitoring system to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Any monitoring system should provide for the regular assessment of the signatories’ implementation of their commitments under the Code. In particular, the signatories should ensure that they all provide information and monitoring data in standardised formats.

Why is this important?

The publication of the Commission’s guidance highlights a revitalised crackdown on the spread of disinformation, whilst reinforcing that the onus of policing the spread on disinformation is on the very platforms that are used by malicious actors. The steps outlined will strengthen the Code and increase the responsibility on the signatories to ensure that adequate steps are taken to combat the spread of disinformation. Consistent monitoring and reviewing on the effect of the Code will help ensure that it continues to evolve to counter new threats of disinformation which may emerge.

Any practical tips?

Working to ensure that the relevant internal procedures and policies are put in place in order to enact the recommendations put forward by the Commission will go a long way to combatting the spread of disinformation. Ideally, collaborating with other signatories, including via working groups, will help ensure consistency in implementation and ongoing effective management.