The European Commission has proposed a new regulation to safeguard media independence and plurality in the EU. Unfortunately, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), in Section 4 of Chapter 3, illustrates a mindset that reduces a significant issue of digital policy to the effective operation of markets dominated by a few social platforms.
The proposal aims to protect media from political inferences, ensure transparency in allocating state funding and advertisement, and reduce media concentrations in the European single market. According to the text of the explanatory memorandum, the proposal provides actions in response to the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, which calls for safeguarding the freedom of expression and information online. The proposal aims, among others, at tackling the risks to the free provision of media services on very large online platforms (VLOPs). The question of how to balance the freedom of expression with the requirements for platform operators is not a new one and has previously been discussed, for example, in the context of the Digital Services Act or the Copyright Directive.
In keeping with the objectives set for EMFA, Section 4 of Chapter 3 of the proposal is devoted to the provision of media services in a digital environment. Most of the section is dedicated to the regulation of VLOPs. EMFA imposes a set of obligations on the providers of such platforms and safeguards against the unjustified removal of media content. For example, in situations that do not involve systematic risk (e.g., disinformation), when removing content that is deemed to be against their policies, VLOPs will need to notify media service providers.
According to how this section reads, in the digital context, the challenges related to the provision of media services, including public media services, can essentially be tackled by more elaborate content moderation. The EC seems to have based Section 4 of Chapter 3 on the assumption that the exercise of the freedom of expression and information takes place solely in privately owned online spaces. “Digital environment” used in the title of Section 4 effectively means “very large online platforms.” In that sense, provisions of EMFA are symptomatic of a mindset that equates the online environment with privately owned spaces and reduces a vital question of digital policy to the proper functioning of markets dominated by a couple of VLOPs.
To approach the subject of internet media services in that manner is short-sighted. Nevertheless, this approach reflects the current reality where a few companies control the global media communication channels. As a result of the concentration on social media ownership, instead of genuinely public digital space, we get what Ben Tarnoff, in his recent book “Internet for the People,” calls “privately owned public spaces.” These spaces, just like shopping malls, are “an engineered environment that paired commerce with a public square” where people socialize and gather information.
It is unfortunate that the EC did not take advantage of the chance presented by the EMFA to support the creation of alternative infrastructures essential for developing a vibrant digital public sphere. Free and plural media are vital components of a genuinely public online environment. More rules on content moderation and coordination between existing media actors and VLOPS are not enough to bring the EU closer to this vision. What the EU needs are public interest-driven alternatives to commercial platforms.