EU justice chief urges U.S. tech giants to halt virus clickbaits

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU justice chief Vera Jourova on Thursday criticized U.S. tech giants such as Google and Facebook for making money off coronavirus-related fake news instead of putting in more efforts to stop the deluge.

FILE PHOTO: European Values and Transparency Commissioner-designate Vera Jourova of Czech Republic attends her hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

With millions of people confined to their homes due to lockdowns to counter the spread of the virus, social media and online platforms have seen the volume of news on their sites and user traffic soar.

That has in turn sparked alarm and criticism because of the flood of disinformation.

Jourova, who last week held a conference call with Facebook, Twitter Inc, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla, said their efforts to date were inadequate.

The companies last week told Jourova that they had removed large quantities of false and harmful content, the bulk of which related to health, and taken measures to remove ads related to protective equipment, such as masks, although there were still gaps. They also reported more users’ access to authoritative sources of information.

“We still see that the major platforms continue to monetise and incentivise disinformation and harmful content about the pandemic by hosting online ads,” Jourova told Reuters in a phone interview, citing the example of one such ad misrepresenting migraines as the cause of the virus.

“This should be stopped. The financial disincentives from clickbait disinformation and profiteering scams also should be stopped,” she said.

Facebook referred to its March 24 announcement, which said the coronavirus outbreak was undercutting sales of the advertising that accounts for nearly all of its revenue even as more users spend time on the social network.

Twitter said it was doing everything to stop virus-related disinformation.

“There is no benefit — commercial or otherwise — in not taking action on Tweets that violate our rules,” the company said in a statement.

“We also have strict rules governing ads on Twitter, evolving from our political content and issue ads policies.”

Jourova said the companies should also share more data with scientists to fight the virus.

“We would like the researchers to have more data from the platforms, to do the proper analysis of the trends,” Jourova said.

She will meet the companies again in a month for a progress report. The European Commission has already signaled its willingness to beef up rules to rein in tech giants, which are likely to be announced toward the end of the year.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Chizu Nomiyama