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European Commission Accuses Google Of Inaction On Election Disinformation

EU Commissioner for Security Union Julian King (right) talks to journalists during a joint news conference with Commissioner for Digital Economy Mariya Gabriel in Brussels on January 29.

BRUSSELS -- The European Commission has slammed Google for what it says is a lack of action in fighting disinformation ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May.

A letter to the U.S.-based Internet giant signed by four European commissioners and seen by RFE/RL says the quality of the information provided to the European Commission "clearly shows that there is an urgent need for further action."

In October, Google, as well as Twitter and Facebook, signed up to the European Commission's Code of Practice -- a set of rules established by Brussels to combat disinformation online ahead of the May 23-26 elections following numerous reports of interference ahead of and during national elections in EU member states and elsewhere.

The three web giants pledged to provide the European Commission with monthly reports from January to May 2019 on how they would implement effective scrutiny of ad placements, adopt transparency tools for political and issue-based advertising, and put in practice policies "designed to strengthen the integrity of their services, including through the closure of fake accounts and the identification of automated bots."

In the letter dated March 11 and addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai after the first two reports and ahead of the third one, the commission says that "Google's latest report provides little or no information on the actual results achieved through the implementation of the relevant measures and no benchmarks enabling the tracking and measurement of progress in the EU."

The letter, provided to RFE/RL by diplomats who were not authorized to speak about it publicly, goes on to say the tech company "does not provide information about concrete actions resulting in the identification of specific bot-driven activities and the closure of fake accounts," adding that it has not reported on progress "towards transparency of issue-based advertising."

It also criticizes Google for providing incomplete information on important implementation aspects, noting that the company "confirms the launch of its policies on transparency of political ads, but remains unclear about when the political ads' transparency reports will be fully operational and how sponsored political communications are dealt with."

Another criticism expressed by the commission is that data in the Google reports "does not always seem to be relevant."

"It is unclear to what extent the figures provided by Google in relation to the actions undertaken to improve its security of ad placements are relevant to monitor progress towards the demonetization of purveyors of disinformation or whether they relate to violations of other policies (i.e misleading advertising)," it says.

According to the letter, the country-by-country breakdown of Google's actions is also vague, since "Google reports about the creation of dedicated election teams without specifying the coverage of member states or by language, nor about current and planned resource allocation."

The letter, signed by Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, Commissioner for Digital Economy Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, and Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourova, invites Google to a roundtable in Brussels on March 19 to "discuss further how to improve reporting and to and to provide and update on the concrete steps you have taken to support member states in monitoring and enforcing electoral laws."

"The date of the European elections is approaching fast and political campaigning in EU member states is about to start. We therefore call upon Google to provide in the next report complete and relevant performance indicators," the letter concludes.

The European Commission has indicated on numerous occasions that it will take action, including adopting potential new legislation, if the companies' response isn't satisfactory.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.