EU chief takes aim at tech giants over freedom of speech

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was not for Internet companies alone to decide how information was disseminated, citing Twitter's decision to permanently ban then US President Donald Trump's account.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was not for Internet companies alone to decide how information was disseminated, citing Twitter's decision to permanently ban then US President Donald Trump's account.

BRUSSELS • Restrictions should be placed on Internet companies so they are not in a position to make unilateral decisions that will affect freedom of speech and democratic values, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday.

"We need to contain this immense power of the big digital companies," Dr von der Leyen said in a virtual address at the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda 2021.

"We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work because we cannot accept that decisions that have a far-reaching impact on our democracy are taken by computer programs alone."

Dr von der Leyen said she was alarmed at the role social media played in the attack on the US Capitol in Washington on Jan 6, as well as Twitter's decision two days later to permanently ban then President Donald Trump's account.

She said it was not for Internet companies alone to decide how information was disseminated.

"We want it clearly laid down that Internet companies take responsibility for the manner in which they disseminate, promote and remove content," the head of the European Union's executive arm said, speaking from Brussels.

"No matter how tempting it may have been for Twitter to turn off President Trump's account, such serious interference with freedom of expression should not be based on company rules alone," she said.

"There needs to be a framework of laws for such far-reaching decisions."

Last month, the EU proposed a tough set of new technology rules in a bid to quash behaviour by powerful platforms they see as posing a threat to the bloc's society and economic markets.

They could hamstring platforms from entering new markets and tightly control how they develop new services.

Dr von der Leyen urged the United States under President Joe Biden to work with Brussels on regulating the tech giants.

"Together, we could create a digital economy rule book that is valid worldwide, from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure.

"A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy," she said.

She also called for a global agreement on protecting biodiversity with the same scale and ambition as the Paris climate pact.

She said the EU would lobby for such a deal at the Conference of Parties (COP15) United Nations biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, in May.

"This will have to be like COP21 was for climate, because we need a Paris-style agreement for biodiversity," she said. The Kunming summit was postponed last year due to the pandemic.

But Dr von der Leyen, a trained doctor, said protecting a diverse range of species and habitats could be key to protecting human health.

"If we don't urgently act to protect our nature, the next pandemic will be around the corner," she said, citing an anecdote that suggested deforestation in Africa had displaced bats and contributed to an Ebola outbreak.

"To those who prefer the business case, here it is: More than half of global GDP is dependent on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services - from food to tourism," she said.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2021, with the headline 'EU chief takes aim at tech giants over freedom of speech'. Subscribe