In December 2022, journalists from a number of news agencies had their accounts arbitrarily suspended on Twitter. After a public outcry, the accounts were reinstated, but this is just the most shocking example of an ongoing struggle that the media faces every day online.
Big tech platforms, such as Google, Instagram, or the Apple app store, have become gatekeepers between public service media and audiences. Social networks, search engines, and app stores now control what content and services are seen when, and by whom, based on their own terms and conditions. Last year’s Digital Services Act (DSA) sets basic requirements to rebalance this relationship, but it falls short of fully protecting media online.
Big tech platforms, all of which are for-profit companies, continue to have massive leeway to impose their terms and conditions directly upon media content. This has resulted in media content being arbitrarily demoted and removed, even though it was perfectly legal and adhered to European media standards. Such meddling with media content and services is at odds with the specific rules that exist for the media in Europe. In a time where citizens are confronted with disinformation and unchecked reporting, platforms are depriving them of trusted information.
The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is an opportunity to redress the remaining significant imbalances in the relationship between major online platforms and media. Complementing the basic framework of the DSA, it should lay down specific rules to secure the integrity of the media online. But how can this be done?
European lawmakers have the opportunity in the EMFA to oblige platforms to create specific, straightforward procedures by which regulated media organizations, such as public service media, are informed in advance if platforms want to tamper with their content and services. Whenever a platform intends to meddle with media content and services, there must be a discussion with the media prior to suspending or restricting content – since the content already meets European standards.
Editors and journalists should be spending their time creating news and content for audiences, not in endless appeals to platforms trying to restore content, apps or services that were removed by platforms. Complaints by media should be dealt with priority and decided upon in no longer than 24 hours after submission. This is important given the time-sensitive nature of media content and services. Processes to restore content must, of course, be user-friendly, so that editors and journalists do not find themselves trying to navigate a difficult or obscure complaint filing system.
Considering the effect of platform behaviour on media pluralism, the EMFA should oblige platforms to enter into an open and transparent dialogue with media organizations and journalists. The goal would be to look for the right solutions together with the media sector.
The EU has an opportunity with the EMFA to protect the integrity of media online. Through the three steps above, platforms will no longer be the arbiters of truth online. Europe can regain control of the respect for media standards: the time to act is now.