European policy-makers are not done with Facebook, Google and fake news just yet

ROME — The U.S. and its political context have loomed large over the interventions made by Facebook and Google to combat fake news.

Even though the companies are household names all over the world, it was fallback from the revelation that top false stories outperformed real stories ahead of the American election that ultimately moved Facebook to deploy new instruments against false content. The changes made by Google to its ad, search and news platforms were also tied to the American political cycle and tested in the United States before being deployed globally.

This Americanocentrism may well be about to change.

While negative coverage of the platforms on U.S. media outlets came fast and thick in the final months of 2016, European regulatory and legislative wheels turned slower — but are still turning. Germany, for instance, recently passed a law concentrating primarily on hate speech imposing fines on Facebook if it doesn't take down hateful or defamatory content within 24 hours.

The United Kingdom and Italy have also seen parliamentary discussion over the role of the legislator in fighting fake news.

At a hearing of the committee for rights and duties on the internet of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, deputies roasted the representatives of the big platforms for not doing enough to curb misinformation and hate speech — separate phenomena that are often bundled together.

(I testified on the state of fact-checking during the same hearing. My presentation is public, in Italian, here).

The "delicacy" of the instruments rolled out by Facebook and Google has "a laughable quality," said Gregorio Gitti of the ruling Democratic Party (PD). He also predicted that antitrust authorities would soon fall down on the platforms. Almost exactly at the same time in a nearby hall of Parliament, the head of the Italian regulatory body for the communications industry Angelo Marcello Cardani was expressing skepticism that self-regulation would be sufficient to defeat fake news.

Quite a different opinion was held by the centrist deputy Stefano Quintarelli, who quoted Edgar Allan Poe as a reminder that concerns about the state of accuracy on the internet echo preoccupations about previous mediums of communication:

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age, since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader's way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed.  (Source)

A similar position was held by another subject matter expert asked to testify, the lawyer and internet advocate Carlo Blengino.

"The internet is the greatest ally to fight fake news," said Blengino. Besides, he said, "truth is not a legal right."

Concerns were raised about outsourcing fact-checking to third parties who may be well-intentioned but insufficiently scrutinized and the risk of censorship.

"Who controls the controllers?" asked Paolo Coppola, also of the PD. (Disclosure: We do, to a point.)

Blengino said that political concerns about the platforms shifting away from being neutral playing grounds were hypocritical. Policy-makers have been "schizophrenic" in this regard, he added, imposing the right to be forgotten on the one hand but demanding agnosticism on the content published in other circumstances.

Facebook and Google representatives mostly stuck to talking points heard in similar fora around the world: The companies don't want to be arbiters of the truth; They have been working incrementally to improve the situation and will keep iterating.

The hearing — like the debate over fake news in Italy as a whole — was also marked by the campaign led by the President of the Chamber of Deputies Laura Boldrini, who chairs the internet committee, against fascist pages on Facebook ("apology of fascism," or public promotion of the fascist ideology, is a crime in Italy).

"Denying that the Holocaust happened is the biggest, most extraordinary and unacceptable fake news," said Boldrini, berating the social network's perceived inaction on this topic. "I have spoken about it publicly ... I have written to Zuckerberg. I don't know what else we can do," she said, wrapping up the hearing.

If the fake news discussion in the United States has revolved primarily around possible technological and business model solutions, the debate in Italy and other European countries will continue to explore the role of the lawmaker.

Whether or not something comes out of these discussions — and how helpful the final outcome would be — Europe's elected officials seem eager to make their voices heard.

Disclosure: Both Facebook and Google have contributed to teaching initiatives that Poynter has conducted over the years.

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