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Italy antitrust chief urges EU to help beat fake news
Competition chief calls for regulation of false information on social media sites
Allies of Matteo Renzi complained that fake news stories contributed to his defeat in the December referendum on
constitutional reform © Reuters
DECEMBER 30, 2016
by: James Politi in Rome
Italy’s antitrust chief has called for EU member states to set up a network of public agencies to
combat fake news. Giovanni Pitruzzella said the regulation of false information on the internet
was best done by the state rather than by social media companies such as Facebook.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Pitruzzella, head of the Italian competition body
since 2011, said EU countries should set up independent bodies — coordinated by Brussels
and modelled on the system of antitrust agencies — which could quickly label fake news (htt
p://next.ft.com/content/631d6b58c3b511e681c2f57d90f6741a), remove it from circulation
and impose fines if necessary.
“Posttruth in politics is one of the drivers of populism and it is one of the threats to our
democracies,” Mr Pitruzzella said. “We have reached a fork in the road: we have to choose
whether to leave the internet like it is, the wild west, or whether it needs rules that appreciate
the way communication has changed. I think we need to set those rules and this is the role of
the public sector.”
Mr Pitruzzella’s call comes amid growing concern over the impact of fake news on politics in
western democracies, including in this year’s UK Brexit vote and the US election. In Germany,
which faces parliamentary elections in 2017, the government is planning a law that would
impose fines of up to €500,000 on social media companies for distributing fake news.
Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s new centreleft prime minister, was the victim of a hoax in his first few
days in office this month when an article incorrectly reported that he called Italians
“whingers” who needed to “learn to make sacrifices”. Allies of Matteo Renzi (http://next.ft.co
m/content/b26e1aa2bc8c11e68b45b8b81dd5d080), the former prime minister, have also
complained that fake news contributed to his defeat in the December referendum on
constitutional reform, which led to his resignation, even though he lost by a wide 20
percentage point margin.
Year in a Word: Post-truth (http://next.ft.com/content/47761ace-c39
On both sides of the Atlantic, this was the year of the lie
Facebook has responded to criticism that it has facilitated the dissemination of fake news by
taking steps to make it easier to report false information. After an accusation of fake news has
been verified by a thirdparty fact checker, the article will be downgraded in complex
algorithms used by the social media to display posts.
But Mr Pitruzzella said it would be inappropriate to leave this task to social media self
regulation. “Platforms like Facebook have created great benefits for people and customers:
they are doing their part as an economic entity in adopting policies to modify their algorithms
to reduce this phenomenon”, he said. “But it is not the job of a private entity to control
information. This is historically the job of public powers. They have to guarantee that
information is correct. We cannot delegate this completely.”
Mr Pitruzzella dismissed concerns that setting up state agencies to monitor fake news would
introduce a form of censorship, saying people could “continue using a free and open internet”.
But he said there would be a benefit in that there would be a public “third party” —
independent of the government — to “intervene quickly if public interests were harmed”.
At the moment, the only way that fake news can be tackled — at least in Italy — is through the
judicial system, which is notoriously clunky. “Speed is a critical element,” Mr Pitruzzella said.
The antiestablishment Five Star Movement (http://next.ft.com/content/c4ce0e0cc38311e6
9bca2b93a6856354) is often labelled as the main facilitator of fake news in Italy, through
the blog of its founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, and a network of other websites affiliated
to the party.
But Mr Pitruzzella declined to cite them as the main culprits. “I don’t know if this is true, I
would not want to criticise anyone, not even the Five Star Movement. But I believe that if
there aren’t any rules then many can take advantage of this.”
Letter in response to this article:
Forget algorithms — Use legal liability to help stem tide of fake news / From Ugo Colella (htt
Print a single copy of this article for personal use. Contact us if you wish to print more to
distribute to others. © The Financial Times Ltd.
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