Rule of Law and Democracy in the Digital Society: Challenges and Opportunities for Europe

19 Oct 2018

Brussels, Belgium

Event report

The meeting ‘Rule of Law and Democracy in the Digital Society: Challenges and Opportunities for Europe’ was chaired by Mr Daniel Gros (Director, Centre for European Policy Studies).

Ms Věra Jourová (European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality) took the opportunity to discuss key challenges and possible solutions for addressing the impact of the digital revolution on the rule of law and democracy.

Jourová said that policymakers and companies must place people at the heart of the digital revolution. Though it appears to be a ‘fantastic sphere for direct democracy’, according to her, the Internet has become highly vulnerable and a highway to hate speech. Citing Jürgen Habermas, Jourová argued that if social media could destabilise authoritarian countries, it also has the capacity to erode public spheres in democracies, with the phenomenon of algorithm bubbles and the polarisation of political expression.

She insisted that a debate on the liability and accountability of tech companies was needed, while being very cautious in assessing the impact of regulations on innovation and values. Now that large tech companies gathered unprecedented power, they also need to accept their responsibilities.

In recognising that for EU institutions and member states, communication through these platforms is unavoidable and has become necessary, Jourová reiterated that the mantra of the European Commission remains that ‘what is illegal offline must be illegal online’. Recent measures and policies initiated by the European Commission demonstrate its ambition to address these challenges with both soft and more legally binding tools, including the 2016 Code of Conduct for IT companies on illegal hate speech and its 2018 proposal for the rapid detection and removal of terrorist content online. After being accused repeatedly in the media of censoring the Internet as part of her fight against hate speech and fake news, Jourová reminded the audience she had lived in a regime (Czechoslovakia) where public institutions were once the arbiter of what was considered true or false, and was thus deeply aware of the need to prevent censorship online while tackling these emerging threats.

Addressing the issue of foreign interference in the next European elections, Jourová argued that member states need to take greater actions in order to curb the risk of manipulation and disinformation campaigns. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the European Commission has developed guidance for enforcing data protection rules in the context of electoral processes and recommended greater transparency in online political advertisements and targeting.

Finally, Jourová referred to the possibility of taxing large IT companies in order to allow a fairer redistribution of the wealth generated by our data. New fiscal revenues should be allocated in particular to education and media literacy programmes for citizens.