'California law doesn't apply in Europe': We spoke to the powerful EU enforcer who's about to push Facebook, Google, and Twitter out of their free speech comfort zone

  • Vera Jourova is the EU's vice president for values and transparency.
  • She is about to unveil a blueprint that has implications for the way Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms handle disinformation and political advertising.
  • The European Democracy Action Plan may butt up against the First Amendment and tech firms' laissez-faire attitude to free speech.
  • Business Insider spoke to Jourova at 2020's Web Summit conference about ending Big Tech's "gentlemen's agreements" to self-regulate.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Facebook, Google, and the wider tech world are bracing for new European rules that target the way they show political ads to users, and how they handle disinformation.

The European Democracy Action Plan is expected to be published this week and is set to lay out the EU's position on elections, democracy, and media freedom and how they are impacted by technology and social media.

The action plan isn't a set of new laws, but more of a blueprint that will contribute to the shaping of future European legislation – a process that could take years.

Vera Jourova is the European Commission's vice president for values and transparency and tasked with drawing up the blueprint. The Czech-born politician will need to demonstrate that the EU respects freedom of speech while bringing the tech platforms to heel.

"I always say that California law does not apply in Europe," Jourova told Business Insider during a virtual onstage interview on December 2 at Web Summit. "We have our own rules, which are also stemming from our history and our legal traditions."

Those traditions, where Europe takes a stricter view on hate speech, butt up against the US First Amendment and the conventionally laissez-faire way the US tech platforms have monitored their platforms to date.

Jourova continued: "When I was in California several years ago, I spoke to the managers of Big Tech companies who are still convinced that they are only the pipes, that they have nothing to do with the content, or they have nothing to do with impact on society. That's over.

"It was a big step forward when we agreed with Google, Twitter, Facebook, with several others that there must be decency, there must be security guaranteed to all groups in society."

Arguing that the current model, where tech platforms regulate disinformation on their own platforms, no longer works, she said: "We cannot continue just on the basis of gentleman's agreements with big tech."

Jourova has this year met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki, and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel.

Asked which firm she found most receptive to proposals to regulate the way they work more closely, she said: "I don't want to do any ranking … But at the same time, I have to say the time of the unregulated wild west is over. We are preparing the regulation, and in a permanent consultation with the big players … We want this to be an inclusive process."

According to Politico and The Financial Times, the action plan contains specific proposals to curb targeted political ads. These are online ads that are only visible to a highly specific audience, and the technique is how the Trump campaign reportedly tried to dissuade Black voters from voting in 2016.

Dr. Tom Dobber, an expert in political communication at the University of Amsterdam, previously told Business Insider's Isobel Asher Hamilton that microtargeted online ads had scope to be manipulated.

"There are clear downsides as well as upsides, e.g. sending relevant information to inactive citizens might activate them," he said. "Microtargeting can increase turnout. These are generally good things. But there is clear potential for manipulation and also potential for the amplification of disinformation."

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