It is not usually normal practice in the European Parliament for more than two committees to link up for a session.
However, for Monday’s ‘Europe Fit for the Digital Age’ hearing with European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, the Special Committee on Foreign Interference (INGE) managed to get no less than four other committees on board.
Lining up to quiz the Danish Commissioner were Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), and the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age (AIDA).
However, as the hearing was scheduled to be only one hour long, not all the committees actually had members on the speakers’ list - ITRE didn’t feature - but the multi-committee approach met with the approval of the Executive Vice-President.
The five-committee set-up illustrated the efforts that MEPs put into making ensuring democracy was safe and that it was able develop in times of unprecedented digitalisation, “because that is indeed what is at stake, whether our democracy can develop, or is being polarised to the extent where disinformation is an effective tool to keep us apart”, said Vestager.
Her presentation focussed on the two main aspects of the EU’s new digital regulations in progress, the Digital Market Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), the latter of particular importance for the INGE remit, as it proposed “a framework that would introduce due diligence obligations according to the size, nature and reach of online services”, including an annual audit for the biggest providers, and continuous oversight by “vetted experts”.
As for the relevance of the DMA’s ‘level playing field’ provisions to the INGE remit, Vestager argued that “as we should fight everything that threatens our democracy, we should also enable [citizens] to use data and technology for the betterment of our democracy and our society, in order to be able to fulfil our promises about a truly inclusive society.”
“As we should fight everything that threatens our democracy, we should also enable [citizens] to use data and technology for the betterment of our democracy and our society, in order to be able to fulfil our promises about a truly inclusive society” European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager
IMCO Vice-Chair Maria Manuel Leitão Marques (S&D, PT) opened the comments and questions session by doubting what the Commission seemed to believe, namely that the EU could meet the challenges of commercial and political on-line abuse “just by transparency and consumer empowerment”, and argued that stronger protection for consumers and democracy was needed.
LIBE rapporteur for the DSM, German Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer (Greens/EFA) quizzed Vestager on the risks of indiscriminate data retention and the necessity of maintaining encryption for data privacy.
Both issues, the Dane replied, would come up for detailed discussion later in the year, once the new draft acts were published in October. However, she did express her belief that the freedom of expression was not the only right that should be considered, and that, for example, children had a right to integrity, which obliged us to prevent their sexual abuse, also on-line.
AIDA Vice-Chair Miapetra Kumpula-Natri (S&D, FI), as well as several other members after her, inquired about the Commission’s view of how the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) was progressing, and what to expect from its next meeting with regards to AI at the end of the month.
Vestager replied by referencing the current efforts by the United Nations through its cultural agency UNESCO formulating ethical principles of AI use, a process which was being attended by the US as well as the EU as observers, she explained, and that inspiration should be taken from that.
The INGE committee’s political group coordinators came up with a wide variety of questions, not all of which the Vice-President felt able to answer in detail before the acts themselves are ready for debate in the autumn.
But for the centre-right EPP group Vladimír Bilčík’s request to spell out her vision for a digital sphere protected from disinformation, she pointed to the charter of digital rights which will be proposed as part of the digital package in the autumn, and, in particular to the right to “vetted and fact-checked” information.
"INGE rapporteur on the DSA, Latvia’s Sandra Kalniete (EPP), reminded the room that over 50 of the world’s leading disinformation experts had published a joint letter asking the EU to tackle disinformation “head on with the DSA, and reiterating the importance of accountability, data access and risk assessments”
She added that she believed it is important “to be more ambitious, have more moderated debates, have more debates where people take the trouble to identify themselves”, as this created trust in on-line debates.
She identified the DSA’s risk assessment provisions as particularly promising in driving change, “because the big platforms will have to look into the services they provide, and they will have to have a very direct evaluation whether any of their services carries a risk of undermining democracy, and if that is the case, they would have to mitigate those risks”.
INGE rapporteur on the DSA, Latvia’s Sandra Kalniete (EPP), reminded the room that over 50 of the world’s leading disinformation experts had published a joint letter asking the EU to tackle disinformation “head on with the DSA, and reiterating the importance of accountability, data access and risk assessments”.
She expressed her hope that their recommendations be taken into account. She warned, however, that “even the most rigid DSA is no silver bullet” against disinformation, calling for other initiatives like the creation of an EU digital observatory or, alternatively, the expansion of the university-based European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) by creating national hubs.
The Baltic States, in particular, who were on the front line of Russian disinformation attacks, needed this urgently.
In her response, the Vice-President expressed her openness for further discussion on the basis of the experts’ recommendations, and reported that the Commission had “just revamped the code of practice, learning from what had been perceived as past weaknesses”.
Asked about her envisaged time-line, Vestager expressed her hope that agreement on the DSA and the DMA could be reached by next spring, and that the rules would become operational on 1 January 2023.