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Democracy in the online world

07 October 2019
Democracy in the online world

In an editorial published today, public service media leaders argue that there is an urgent need to secure Europe’s digital sovereignty

Across Europe, democracy is under threat. 

In today’s polarized world, an increase in extremism is fuelled by people’s growing distrust in institutions and the insidious spread of disinformation and hate speech. 

The rapid rise of unregulated global platforms is also fertile ground to spread messages that manipulate, mislead and even sway the course of elections. 

As leaders of the largest public service media organizations in Europe we believe it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Public service media organizations across Europe annually invest over 18 billion euros in content, the vast majority of national or EU origin. Our research shows time and again how strong public service media is critical to healthy democracies. So, we need to ensure it is nurtured and protected in the online world. 

The incoming European Commission President has expressed a desire to create a ‘Europe fit for the Digital Age’. Ursula Von der Leyen believes Europe can achieve this ‘if we build on our strengths and values’. 

In a continent of diverse cultures and diverging political outlooks, it is sometimes easy to forget that freedom of speech and an open media have been shared values of European democracy. 

Now, these very values are under threat. Not since the end of state censorship in Europe has media pluralism been more at risk. But this time around, the enforcers have been replaced by algorithms. 

Global online platforms have profoundly changed how people access and consume content. They are also disrupting the way European media content is displayed, attributed and remunerated. Working out how to manage this constantly changing landscape in a way that upholds our values and empowers European citizens is an urgent priority for European leaders. 

Disruption in the media sector is not in itself a bad thing. It stimulates innovation and opens opportunities for audiences and creators. The challenge is that many platforms have evolved from distributors to powerful gatekeepers - dictating the prominence, display and removal of third-party content. As public service content gets harder to find and identify, it is ultimately consumers who suffer, as they lose out on the content they most trust, value and rely on. 

Why does this matter and what has it got to do with European values? 

Public Service Media are part of the social, cultural and democratic fabric of Europe. They have editorial responsibility for the content they publish but are also governed by a strict national and European regulatory framework. Platform operators have limited liability for the content they make available despite the negative impact they can have on shaping opinion. This is just one of the many imbalances that needs to be corrected. 

Tackling the spread of ‘fake news’ and disinformation is absolutely crucial. But it is not enough to ensure people have access to a plurality of views. Europe needs a fair and transparent online environment, building on the success of Europe’s GDPR legislation, if we are to ensure digital sovereignty. 

In order for people to easily find and access high-quality, trustworthy information and programming we need regulation that guarantees the prominence of public value content on all major platforms. Clear brand attribution will also enable citizens to check the source of content and go some way towards reversing the declining trust in media. 

Legislation that forces powerful platforms to grant access to data is urgently needed. Data allows our public media organizations to tailor content to best meet audience expectations, in line with data protection rules. It would bring to an end to the current situation in which we make our content available on significant platforms that widely benefit from the related data but in many cases refuse to share it. 

Ursula von der Leyen is right that it comes down to ‘grasping the opportunities from the digital age within safe and ethical boundaries’. Getting this balance right is one of the most urgent challenges facing her team in the coming years. Act quickly and Europe has the opportunity to establish itself as the global leader in this space while securing our digital sovereignty and ultimately safeguarding European democracy. Move too slowly and it may be too late to act once we realise what we have lost. 

Tony Hall, BBC Director General and EBU President 

Delphine Ernotte Cunci, Chief Executive Officer of France Télévisions and EBU Vice- President 

Ulrich Wilhelm, Director General of the Bayerischer Rundfunk and ARD Chairman 

Thomas Bellut, ZDF Director General 

Marcello Foa, Rai President 

Rosa María Mateo, RTVE President 

Noel Curran, EBU Director General

Relevant links and documents


Michelle Roverelli

Director of Member Relations and Communications