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Italy urges EU states to combat fake news

Italy’s antitrust chief has called for EU member states to set up a network of public agencies to combat fake news. Giovanni Pitruzzella said the regulation of false information on the internet was best done by the state rather than by social media companies such as Facebook. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Pitruzzella, head of the Italian competition body since 2011, said EU countries should set up independent bodies — co-ordinated by Brussels and modelled on the system of antitrust agencies — which could quickly label fake news, remove it from circulation and impose fines if necessary. 

“Post-truth in politics is one of the drivers of populism and it is one of the threats to our democracies,” Mr Pitruzzella said. “We have reached a fork in the road: we have to choose whether to leave the internet like it is, the wild west, or whether it needs rules that appreciate the way communication has changed. I think we need to set those rules and this is the role of the public sector.”

Mr Pitruzzella’s call comes amid growing concern over the impact of fake news on politics in western democracies, including in this year’s UK Brexit vote and the US election. In Germany, which faces parliamentary elections in 2017, the government is planning a law that would impose fines of up to €500,000 on social media companies for distributing fake news. 

Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s new centre-left prime minister, was the victim of a hoax in his first few days in office this month when an article incorrectly reported that he called Italians “whingers” who needed to “learn to make sacrifices”. Allies of Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, have also complained that fake news contributed to his defeat in the December referendum on constitutional reform, which led to his resignation, even though he lost by a wide 20-percentage point margin. 

Facebook has responded to criticism that it has facilitated the dissemination of fake news by taking steps to make it easier to report false information. After an accusation of fake news has been verified by a third-party fact checker, the article will be downgraded in complex algorithms used by the social media to display posts. 

But Mr Pitruzzella said it would be inappropriate to leave this task to social media self-regulation. “Platforms like Facebook have created great benefits for people and customers: they are doing their part as an economic entity in adopting policies to modify their algorithms to reduce this phenomenon”, he said. “But it is not the job of a private entity to control information. This is historically the job of public powers. They have to guarantee that information is correct. We cannot delegate this completely.”

Mr Pitruzzella dismissed concerns that setting up state agencies to monitor fake news would introduce a form of censorship, saying people could “continue using a free and open internet”. But he said there would be a benefit in that there would be a public “third party” — independent of the government — to “intervene quickly if public interests were harmed”. 

At the moment, the only way that fake news can be tackled — at least in Italy — is through the judicial system, which is notoriously clunky. “Speed is a critical element,” Mr Pitruzzella said. 

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement is often labelled as the main facilitator of fake news in Italy, through the blog of its founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, and a network of other websites affiliated to the party.

But Mr Pitruzzella declined to cite them as the main culprits. “I don’t know if this is true, I would not want to criticise anyone, not even the Five Star Movement. But I believe that if there aren’t any rules then many can take advantage of this.”

Via FT