"Fake news" : bringing the European debate to the source of the problem

Paris, 2 March 2018 - The European Commission recently launched a consultation on “fake news and online disinformation” to which La Quadrature has responded. The current debate about these phenomena seems to be dominated by a prevailing confusion and risks to lead to measures restricting freedom of expression and the right to information. Nonetheless, the big platforms' system of commercial surveillance needs to be addressed seriously, as it disrupts public debate by treating our attention as a commodity.

A spectre is haunting American and European political leaders, the spectre of "fake news". Early in January, Emmanuel Macron announced future legilsation in order to prevent the spread of " false information ", especially during election period. The draft bill is supposed to be discussed in French National Assembly1 end of March.

The European Commission's consultation was closed on 23 February, and the results should lead up to a decision whether European legislation on this topic is needed or not. In parallel, the Commission appointed an expert group charged with submitting a report in March. Both measures exclusively target online content which is “lawful but false', without defining “false”.

To foster constructive debate around "fake news and online disinformation" we would like to remind five fundamental observations:

  1. The problem of disinformation is as old as political power itself: the influence of traditional mass media on political power, as well as their tendency to sensationalism, are not recent phenomena;
  2. There is no criteria to define an information in a reasonable way as "false", the veracity of an information should only be examined when this information causes a specific harm to an individual or the society as a whole;
  3. In the very way the Internet was conceived, it is a neutral network, and it differs from other media by the fact that it gives anyone the possibility to express themselves and leaves it up to users to control the information they receive;
  4. Internet could be a tool to considerably widen the public debate, but the automated regulation of this debate, driven by purely economical interests, is heavily detrimental in this regard: in order to sell their advertising spaces, dominant platform favour the spread of information that is most useful in targeting their users;
  5. The advertisment surveillance system of leading platforms, based on the "available brain time"2, turned Internet users, as well as traditional media readers, into commercial products. In this regard, it is not users but services themeselves that are responsible for the dissemination of information that is harmful to balanced public debate.

To tackle the problem of disinformation facing automated regulation of the public debate, it appears necessary to consider the following:

  1. In a democracy, the definition of one or multiple truths can only be established by society itself3 (whereby the multiple thruths do not need to be a coherent as a whole);
  2. The automated regulation of public debate by dominating plateforms is highly harmful to this democratic mechanism of establishing thruths, as the value of information is almost exclusively defined by the number of clicks it can generate;
  3. The fact that society, due to automated regulation, is less and less able to establish it's truths, should not lead to the point where this ability is entirely denied and where society is completly at mercy of censorship by governments loosing legitimacy and predatory platforms.

Rather than fighting evil with evil (by encouraging platforms to censorship without taking into account their business model), it is necessary to force platforms to interoperability with alternative platforms and to respect personnal data regulations (which would slow down their harmful influence on public debates).

As a matter of fact, the over-spreading of a certain type of information, according to opaque and purely economic criteria and thus not in terms of public interest, is the inevitable consequence of surveillance practices imposed by centralised platforms on their users. Yet, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides that a service provider cannot withhold it's service to a user only beacuse the latter does not consent to the analysis of his or her behaviour (see also the Article 29 Working Party's definition of freely given consent in it's Guidelines on EU Regulation 2016/679).

In this regard, the fact that GPDR coming into effect on the 25th of May is very good news. One can now hope to drastically limit the power of leading advertising platforms in terms of user surveillance, and to make "clickbait content", of which “fake news” are a subcategory, a lot less interesting.

See La Quadrature du Net's response [FR] to the consultation.

  • 1. French lower legislative house
  • 2. An expression made famous by Patrick Le Lay, former CEO of TF1, France's biggest TV channel
  • 3. The discussion between Socrates and Protagoras, reported in Plato's Protagoras, offers an interesting approach to question the origin of what we consider as “truths”: it may be an absolute or divine source (as suggested by Socrates), or – in an approach that would be qualified today as relativistic (as suggested by Protagoras) – Humanity itself which would then be “the measure of all things”, according to the famous concept