The U.S. Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, fueled by disinformation and conspiracy theories spread on social media, was a wake-up call for democracies across the world. The attack strengthened the case against the long-surviving notion that digital platforms can regulate themselves without serious repercussions for democracy. Thus, in these circumstances, it is now a matter of urgency to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk, if the creation of a truly democratic digital space is to take shape.
Despite numerous congressional hearings with Big Tech leaders, as well as the introduction of (so-far unsuccessful) antitrust cases against digital platforms, social media companies are largely left off the hook from helping to counter manipulated information that is amplified and disseminated across their transnational platforms. The attack on the Capitol graphically demonstrated what the future may hold in store for the United States, as well as any other democracy if the question of the role digital platforms play in facilitating radicalization and social polarization is left unanswered. This opens the window for renewed transatlantic cooperation in the protection of the online information space.
The EU has been attempting to “create a digital soul of Europe,” in the words of the European Commission’s Vice President Věra Jourová, through initiatives such as the Digital Services Act, the European Democracy Action Plan, the AI Act, and the upcoming Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation. The EU’s digital regulation leadership is most welcome, but for the information space to be free from manipulated information and systematic efforts to undermine democracies, transatlantic democracies must join forces to improve the information space together. To succeed, both the United States and the EU must demonstrate their serious approach with more and better-tailored measures that include a systematic enforcement power. The creation of the Trade and Technology Council—one of the main outcomes of the U.S.-EU Summit shows their commitment, spelling hope for the future of the transatlantic democratic digital space. Among many goals, the Council aims to engage in discussions on digital transition and build a healthier information space by developing more robust transatlantic cooperation and standards on regulatory policies and enforcement.
Malign actors are constantly improving their information manipulation efforts and techniques and adapting to platforms’ regulations. This new transatlantic Council must develop a proactive, long-term approach to effectively counter these harmful efforts. As increasingly sophisticated technology will assist in the creation of manipulated content—for example, articles are written solely by AI and deepfakes—democracies need to be resilient enough to withstand this onslaught of mistrust-generating influence operations.
In practice, the Council should define a clear set of standardized rules and cooperation mechanisms between all accountable stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia, as well as Internet users, in the transatlantic area.
The creation of the Council is a welcome development; however, some areas need to be addressed in even more comprehensive ways. If the Council is to be truly efficient, it should not only be concerned with improved bilateral investments and trade deals, but also with increased liability for digital platforms. It should also contribute to setting due-diligence obligations and increasing user and civil society empowerment beyond national borders to contribute to and help shape upcoming EU and global policies for a healthier infosphere.
To address these issues and contribute to generating tangible solutions to pressing informational problems, we have defined ten Transatlantic Principles for a Healthy Online Information Space within the Alliance for Healthy Infosphere (AHI), based on values inherent to democracy:
- Strive for greater transparency in the online information space;
- Empower users to make informed decisions about their data;
- Foster a culture of digital responsibility and accountability;
- Minimize the spread of harmful information online;
- Work towards timely, standardized, and proportionate rules for the digital space;
- Support the ethical use of AI systems that embrace democracy;
- Develop tools to increase citizens’ media and digital literacy;
- Empower civil society and the public to get involved;
- Nurture an open space for competition to avoid monopolies; and
- Search for transatlantic solutions and beyond.
The global coronavirus pandemic has supercharged the digital transformation, opening society up to a wealth of new vulnerabilities and making the role of digital regulation and transatlantic cooperation more urgent than ever. The adoption and promotion of these ten principles present a valuable opportunity to bring key transatlantic actors together to not only endorse the principles but also to act on, and to encourage other relevant stakeholders to act on, them. Stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic must be bold in their efforts to create a healthy online information space across different markets and cultures, and they must apply a structural approach to digital regulations. For democracies to be effective in transforming plans into actions, they must have a common understanding of the challenges and tackle them together beyond national borders. This will also help mitigate repressive measures that are used as a way to suppress dissenting voices in the name of “fight against disinformation,” particularly in non-democratic countries. The Ten Transatlantic Principles for a Healthy Online Information Space, along with policy recommendations, can be downloaded here: