Wednesday 20 January 2021 2:54 pm

EU chief Von der Leyen calls for ‘democratic limits’ to Big Tech power

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen has called for a crackdown on the “untrammelled” power of tech giants following violent riots at the Capitol earlier this month.

In a speech marking the inauguration of Joe Biden, Von der Leyen welcomed the new US president, adding: “After four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House”.

In a forthright address, the EU chief said there was a feeling of “relief” at the change of administration but warned that while Trump’s presidency would soon be history, his movement would not.

Von der Leyen cited the storming of the Capitol, during which five people died, saying it should be treated as a “sobering warning” and blamed social media for helping to spread violence.

“That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

The EU boss pointed to similar events in Europe, including an attempt by right-wing extremists to storm the Reichstag in Berlin last year and the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016.

“There are people who subscribe to rampant conspiracy theories, which are often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies,” she said.

“And, of course, we too see this hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people.”

Political power

In a full-frontal attack on the power of Silicon Valley, Von der Leyen said there was an obligation to make sure “messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked”.

“We must impose democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the internet giants,” she added.

Social media firms including Twitter and Facebook blocked Trump from their platforms in the wake of the riots, citing concerns about further incitement of violence.

But the incident has sparked further concerns about how tech giants police the content posted to their sites, as well as accusations of censorship by senior executives.

Von der Leyen today stressed that the EU valued innovation, but said technology should “never mean that others decide how we should live our lives”.

Pointing to Twitter’s decision to take down Trump’s account, the commission president said “such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules”.

“It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers,” she added.

The EU has tabled two new pieces of legislation that will see tech giants fined if they fail to appropriately moderate material posted to their platforms.

Similar measures are also planned in the UK, where Ofcom will oversee new regulations aimed at reducing online harms.