Why EU’s reputation as a champion of free society is at risk – Catherine Stihler

The European Parliament must take action to help halt the spread of fake news (Picture: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty)
The European Parliament must take action to help halt the spread of fake news (Picture: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty)
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The European Union has the power to stand up to Donald Trump over taxes on tech monopolies and help fight the spread of disinformation– in keeping with its historic role as a defender of openness and freedom. But a new EU copyright directive is taking us towards a more closed society, writes Catherine Stihler.

The digital era has opened up our world like never before. Children are growing up in an interconnected society with invisible borders, information is available on our smartphones in an instant, and artificial intelligence is transforming our economy and way of life.

It is an exciting time to be alive, and the pace of technological advancement continues to astound us.

But this digital revolution must not leave anyone behind. That’s why we need new rules to ensure we build a fair, free and open future. This starts with national governments taking action.

In the UK, we have a golden opportunity to lead by example and boost our economy as a result, but the Government must invest in skills to make this a reality.

Without training and knowledge, large numbers of workers will be ill-equipped to take on many jobs of the future.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has proposed a data literacy training programme open to local communities to ensure UK workers have the skills for new technological jobs; citizen science projects through schools, libraries, churches and community groups to help people collect high-quality data relating to issues such as air quality or recycling; and greater use of open licences, which grant the general public rights to reuse, distribute, combine or modify works that would otherwise be restricted under intellectual property laws.

READ MORE: EU urged to crack down on fake news to protect democracy

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Governments across the world, not only in the UK, must work harder to give everyone access to key information and the ability to use it to understand and shape their lives; as well as making powerful institutions more accountable.

But new rules for the digital age can’t only happen at the national level – there needs to be action at the international level as well.

The risks of going it alone are becoming clear. The UK Government has announced plans to press ahead with plans to introduce a new two per cent tax on large tech companies’ revenues, while the French senate recently approved a digital services tax of three per cent.

These taxes are designed to target large tech monopolies like Google and Facebook, amid ongoing concerns about the amount of tax paid by large corporations. But the proposals are fiercely opposed by the US. And Donald Trump’s US administration has now warned the UK that it will not get a free trade deal after Brexit unless the new tax is dropped.

Piecemeal action will allow countries to be picked off one-by-one by Donald Trump, which is why a Europe-wide solution is required. Incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her colleagues need to prioritise greater openness when they take up their new roles.

A Europe-wide digital services tax, for example, which could also involve non-EU countries in the post-Brexit era, would make it much harder for President Trump to retaliate. And when it comes to taxes paid by large corporations, we also need greater transparency so that we can increase fairness and rebuild public trust.

The EU has been too slow to act on this. The failure to update the international tax system has allowed businesses to move their profits and intellectual property around the world, often to locations where they pay the least tax.

It was recently reported that the Scottish makers of video game Grand Theft Auto have paid no UK corporation tax in ten years. And a leak revealed how multinational companies have used Mauritius to avoid taxes in countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas.

Tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are some of the most high-profile examples of companies using complicated tax structuring, but the problem is systemic.

The Open Knowledge Foundation is pushing for a variety of measures known as the ABCs of tax transparency: Automatic exchange of information where countries can more easily share tax data on individuals or businesses; Beneficial ownership where the issue of opaque company ownership is addressed by publishing public registers of who owns or runs companies and trusts; and Country-by-country reporting where corporations would be required to publish details about the tax they pay, people they employ and profits they make in each country where they operate, to build up a better picture of their activities.

Policymakers across the EU need to prioritise tax transparency as an essential strand of modernising the global taxation system to improve public trust and ensure corporate compliance.

The EU must also work harder to tackle the spread of disinformation on the internet and social media. This topic was discussed at the most recent European Council summit, but it is action that is required – not words.

The institutions of the European Union must use their influence to force online platforms to provide more detailed information, allowing the identification of malign actors, put pressure on Google and Twitter to increase transparency, and encourage closer working with fact checkers to prevent the spread of disinformation.

The best way to tackle disinformation is to make information open, allowing journalists, developers and the research community to carry out analysis of disinformation operations. With upcoming national elections across the EU, this is of paramount importance to help rebuild trust in politics and build a fair, free and open future.

But, alarmingly, one EU decision is taking us towards a more closed society – the issue of copyright.

A new EU copyright directive is expected to lead to the introduction of blunt ‘filtering’ software on websites, which will automatically remove potentially copyrighted content, and is opposed by millions of people across the EU.

While entertainment footage is most likely to be affected, academics fear it could also restrict the sharing of knowledge, and critics argue it will have a negative impact on freedom of speech and expression online – including in the UK regardless of whether Brexit happens.

Instead of risking a closed future, the EU must work towards an open future where knowledge is shared by all and help build a world where people are able to fulfil their potential and live happy and healthy lives.

Catherine Stihler is chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation