It has been two months since António Costa’s Cabinet took over the presiding over the EU Council and announced the delivery of a fair, green and digital recovery as the framework of its programme. 

Already in early 2020, Croatia’s Shaping Europe’s Digital Future working paper draft indicated that we could expect to hear more about disinformation-related initiatives with the upcoming long-pending modernisation of the EU’s 2001 e-Commerce directive. 

In October 2020, Germany set to plan the opening of the discussion among the EU member-states on the Digital Services Act legislative package (DSA) prior its official December 2020 proposal announcement by the European Commission. 

As disinformation continues to proliferate through the EU’s online space, including in Portugal, the new presidency’s “Resilient Europe” action line now aspires not only to defend the EU’s fundamental values such as the rule of law and democracy, but also to tackle all forms of discrimination, disinformation and hate speech both offline and online. 

To deliver the fair, green and digital recovery, the Portuguese programme, thus, promised further deepening of Germans’ emphasis on strengthening societal resilience and the battle against disinformation in times of crisis. 

Portuguese plans amid the third wave of pandemic

The January message of António Costa’ Cabinet’s commitment to battle harmful content was clear: Portugal will carry on with the negotiations on the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Law submitted to the European Parliament and the European Council by the European Commission in December 2020. 

Unprecedented times, however, require unprecedented responses, and the arising internal challenges such as the worsening epidemiologic situation have kept most of Portugal’s communication on the economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The debates on the coordination of the agenda in the field of education, health, economy and social affairs have outshined the fight against disinformation in the first third of Portugal’s presidential mandate. 

The implementation of the Next Generation EU Recovery and Resilience Plans on national level has so far topped the response to the need for economic recovery outlined by the pandemic. In the field of research and innovation, the Portuguese historically fourth presidency led the launch of the new 2021-2027 “Horizon Europe” programme. In the run-up to the May 2020 Porto Social Summit, the Interparliamentary Conference on Stability, Economic Coordination and Governance in the EU also promised the presentation of Portugal’s Action Plan for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights later this month. 

Though pushed towards the limits of the broader context of other initiatives such as the call for promotion of active citizenship and the Portuguese Minister of Justice Francisca Van Dunem’s announcement of the protection of vulnerable adults as one of Lisbon’s priorities, the recovery agenda has been not completely silent about Lisbon’s digital recovery ambitions. 

Last month brought the communication of the success of the ePrivacy rules initiative. The EU member states agreed to revise, under the Portuguese flagship, the existing GDPR rules in force since 2002. Similarly to the e-Commerce directive to be updated by the Digital Services Act legislation package, the current ePrivacy directive does not include the technological and market developments such as the new ways of users’ online behaviour tracking techniques. The new rules will include the ban of confidential electronic communications data misuse. Notwithstanding the exceptions defined by the directive, the new framework will, for instance, reserve the right to allow to listen, monitor or process the data only for the end-users in the European Union. 

Leading Europe out of the COVID-19 pandemic and infodemic

While the new presidency has been very clear about its goals in the digital sphere, it was not until the 23 February General Affairs Council meeting brought more concrete disinformation-related steps in the 2021 Portugal’s official communication. The late February session discussed a few ‘firsts’, including the first discussion of the implementation of the European Democracy Action Plan since Portugal’s accession to the 2021 presidency of the EU Council. 

The remaining four months will require more than the communication of initiatives such as the celebration of the Safer Internet Day and stressing the need for digital literacy if Lisbon’s goals to fight disinformation are to be met. As the COVID-19 infodemic continues to overwhelm the continent, it becomes more obvious than ever that disinformation can kill. The medical, economic, digital and social recovery from the crisis cannot be assessed without addressing it. 

This week, the French Minister of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune briefed on Paris’ preparations for the completion of the Digital Markets Act and the DSA implementation under the French early 2022 presidency of the Council of the European Union. The announcement of the French digital policy plans after the 2021 Portuguese and Slovenian mandates reinforces the prospects of need for communication on the topics of disinformation and social media regulation. 

The message of the Ministers of European Affairs and Secretaries of State’s last meeting could be the right stepping-stone in this process.


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