Věra Jourová: I don’t want to regulate online content – I just want more transparency

Věra Jourová, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

As the European Commission’s vice-president for transparency and values, Věra Jourová’s work is focused on a number of important areas. These include ensuring member states respect the rules of the European Union, combatting online disinformation and advocating for transparency in election campaign advertising. When I spoke to the Czech Republic’s member of the European Commission, the conversation touched on everything from whether social networks like Facebook should fact-check political speech to the closing of European borders when the coronavirus hit the continent.

You’re the vice-president of the European Commission. Why does the European Union feel the need to promote certain values?

“It’s the first time the Commission has a person who is entitled to defend values and transparency.

“It had a very serious reason, because over the last, let’s say, five, six years, we saw suddenly and clearly that the values are not a given, that we have to do more to protect and defend the rule of law principle, that we have do to more to protect people endangered by discrimination and inequality.

“We need to do more also to explain to citizens that the freedoms are here for them, but they can be endangered as well.

“So that’s my job.

“Some critics say that it’s only speaking, that there’s not enough action, but I don’t agree with that.

“I can tell you I’ve had to do a lot vis-à-vis Poland and Hungary.”

“Because I’m now in the position almost one year and I can tell you I’ve had to do a lot vis-à-vis Poland and Hungary.

“Yes, words. Words are my instruments, and I am using them.”

I wanted to ask you – what are the mechanisms, if any, at your disposal to penalise countries that flout EU values?

“The mechanisms are enshrined in the Treaty [on European Union] and I use them to the extent of the competence I’ve got.

“I am known as somebody who really doesn’t want to be an activist, to go further, but I am responsibly using the instruments.

“We have different procedures for different kinds of problems. The Commission is the guardian of the Treaty and we have to pay attention to how EU law is applied in the member states.

“In case we see gaps or problems. we have to act and it relates to the rule of law principle, where we started several procedures which ended up at court level.

Photo: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay / CC0

“We have the so-called Article 7 procedure [under which the EU can suspend certain rights from a member state], which has been launched in the case of Poland and Hungary.

“And now I am really strongly promoting the idea that we should connect EU money with values, because the EU must not be seen as a cash machine which is easy to get money from but not pay anything back.”

In June the European Commission issued a report saying that China and Russia were spreading false, misleading information online about Covid-19, and they referred to this as an “infodemic”. You yourself said at that time, “It would be too dangerous not to act”. In this regard what concrete action is the EU taking, or at least planning to take?

“It was high time that we did it.

“I was happy that we agreed on transparent communication and that we revealed cases of disinformation attacks on the EU.

“It’s too dangerous to be passive because what we saw also, for instance, in the case of Brexit – the Brexit result was also very heavily influenced by the attack done by disinformation.

“What can we do? We will adopt the Action Plan to protect democracy by the end of this year.

“I am strongly promoting the idea that we should connect EU money with values, because the EU must not be seen as a cash machine.”

“And I would like to achieve stronger protection of elections, because the time before elections is always vulnerable and volatile from the point of view of the influence done by disinformation.

“I am looking into how micro-targeting works, how the algorithms work, in the social media world.

“We want to make online political campaigning more transparent, so people know that they are now reading something which is paid for by somebody who wants something, who wants their votes.

“We want to do more fact-checking. No censorship. I will always defend the freedom of speech.

“But I believe that if a politician uses the benefits, the advantages, of social media, he or she has to count with the possibility that he or she will be fact-checked, or what they say will.

“So fact-checking is an important part of our strategy.

“And the last thing – it will sound academic, maybe theoretical – is that Covid showed to us that a sector which is under disinformation attack has to defend its facts.

“This is what we wanted from ministries of health, from the WHO: to defend their facts, their arguments.

“We wanted them to provide people with information – so that we have active citizens who are not easy targets of disinformation.”

It’s a big question, but what do you think ultimately is the aim of these countries like Russia and China that are spreading disinformation in the West?

Photo: geralt/Pixaaby, CC0

“I believe a strong West is something China and Russia don’t wish to keep.

“That’s why they want to distract our societies. They want to decrease people’s trust in democratic institutions – this is what we saw in the Covid time, where we still are now.

“Very well-targeted and designed disinformation campaigns seek to abuse people’s fear.

“And this is all a very dangerous cocktail which we refuse to drink in Europe.

“That’s why we want to take several measures – I named only some of them.”

You mentioned election campaign transparency. But how important is that? Disinformation may not directly support or undermine one candidate or one party, but it could just spread fear on issues – and that can have a knock-on effect to the benefit or to the detriment of some party. Can you regulate that?

“Of course not. I don’t to regulate content. I just want more transparency. I want people to know that they are now objects of political marketing.

“I believe that we should look into how marketing on online networks is organised.

“Because the algorithms and the bubbles have been created to sell more products to consumers – but to use the same method to sell politicians to citizens, this is very tricky and dangerous.

“That’s why I am looking at these things – transparency and processes – rather than content.

“If democratic politicians see that people fear something – and we have many issues which make people nervous – then democratic politicians should able to react to that and not to complain that the disinformers abuse that.

“[Russia and China] want to decrease people’s trust in democratic institutions – this is what we saw in the Covid time.”

“So again, that’s the challenge: to come out with a solution that will not bring any kind of censorship but spread trustworthy narratives, and to invest more in spreading those narratives.”

Combating disinformation would seem to require the active involvement of Facebook, which I guess is by a long way the biggest social network. But is Facebook itself not part of the problem? For example, Mark Zuckerberg said just a couple of months ago that social networks shouldn’t fact-check political speech.

“I was so happy when he said it [laughs]. It was in Congress. I was watching it very carefully.

“I believe that he is right on this matter.

“If I remember well what he said, it was, ‘You are accusing us of grabbing too much power without balancing it with responsibility – and now in this moment you want to give us even more power, to become the arbiters of the truth.’

“This must not happen. This must not happen. That’s why we want to come with another mechanism and with a system where people will have a better chance to understand which content, from which part, who is behind a marketing campaign.

“But I believe that Big Tech must be neither arbiter of the truth nor the facilitator of the public debate.

“We have to come back to normal. What we see not only in the Facebook space but in many other spaces is what I call the privatisation of public debate. We have to come back from that.”

You referred to fact-checking. I often wonder, is fact-checking still important in a world that’s often described as post-truth, where a president of a major country can spew 100 lies a day or a week or whenever? If somebody fact checks and says, ‘That’s a lie’ the people who support that leader don’t care anyway.

Donald Trump, photo: Jette Carr, U. S. Air Force, Public Domain

“Should we give up? I believe not. Truth matters. I believe truth still matters.

“And a post-truth era – I think we should agree on the fact it’s not what we want to accept as the new normal.”

You publicly welcomed Twitter’s moves to flag misinformation being spread by Donald Trump. I’m maybe kind of repeating myself now, but what can Twitter really achieve in that regard, given the sheer volume of false claims made by Mr. Trump?

“Mr. Trump is using Twitter especially very successfully. He’s setting the tone, he’s setting the subjects – the journalists are second. It’s a new phenomenon.

“But Mr. Trump and many other influential people of this world should be aware of their incredible responsibility – that people are following them and believing them.

“That’s why I praised and applauded Twitter for adding the facts, which I understand a competition of speeches rather than censorship.

“That’s why I said this may be a way forward.”

And for you is it even positive as a gesture, because as I say they can’t do that every time?

“Of course they cannot. And I never wanted them to establish some kind of internal Twitter or Facebook police.

“Maybe technically it might be feasible, but I never wanted them, for instance, to use artificial intelligence to detect disinformation or hate speech.

“Because in these two categories of, let’s say, harmful content you have to be able to work with language.

“For instance, with hate speech, which is a different story from disinformation, I always wanted Facebook and the other big ones to work in all EU member states’ languages, to understand the case law, the decisions of the courts and what is defined as illegal hate speech in each country.

“And you cannot use technology to detect it.”

The European Union didn’t have a great start to the coronavirus crisis. There was a strong perception that they abandoned countries like Italy and Spain to their own fates. Has the EU been seriously weakened by the whole pandemic situation?

“The feeling is strange when the border is closed.”

“I don’t believe that.

“In the longer term the EU might show that the first condition is that we are united – and we are able not only to mobilise money but also to mobilise solidarity.

“This is what was missing at the beginning of the Covid crisis. And we have accepted the criticism.

“At the beginning we were all shocked by the new situation.

“We could not trigger the normal mechanisms of civil protection, because in the EU we have the mechanism that if some countries are having big problems – because of some earthquake or floods and so on – the other states help.

“But suddenly we found ourselves in a situation where all the states were affected by the same thing, with a different impact, which is calculable.

“All the member states were affected but the impact, also on the economies, is asymmetric.

“We saw that Greece, for instance, was not so badly affected from the health perspective, but the economic impact is incredibly high.

“So mobilisation of money and solidarity, and ability to coordinate and look for common solutions… I think that we have made big progress since March.

“But yes, the start was not our star moment.”

I think for many ordinary Europeans Schengen is one of the greatest benefits of being in the EU. Were you concerned earlier in the pandemic crisis when borders were closed?

Photo: archive of Czech Radio

“Yes. We were concerned at how quickly it happened, that it happened by unilateral decisions of the member states, without any consultations – not even with neighbours.

“But that was the beginning. Now we do not want to repeat the same mistake, so now it’s more coordinated and when states are closing borders they are doing it on the basis of the clear epidemiological situation.

“And I would be concerned it if lasted too long.

“So it was necessary, but we wanted to have this new, strange regime only over a period which is strictly necessary.

“So we are working with the possibility of closing borders.

“We wanted, and the Commission did a lot for this, to keep the borders open for goods, for products, because we wanted the single market to keep going.”

What did you think when in this country some people compared the situation during the state of emergency to pre-1989?

“The feeling is strange when the border is closed.

“And especially for my generation. I can tell you, it was a very strange reminiscence and recollection of the moments when we were aware we cannot travel.

“But the situation was different.

“Of course now we understood why this is necessary and we believed that the checks and balances, which also guarantee freedoms, are still working.

“And in the Czech Republic the courts worked, the Parliament worked, the government asked for extraordinary powers, under the scrutiny of the Parliament and the public.

“So this was something which didn’t exist before 1989.”