Update: On 13 March 2024, the EU Parliament approved the EU Media Freedom Act. The bill promotes media pluralism in the EU and provides important standards on the transparency of media ownership. Thanks to EFF, EU representatives addressed some key concerns in the final version. For example, the EU Digital Services Act remains largely intact and additional safeguards will help to ensure media independence from political parties and governments. However, we remain concerned about the approach of forcing platforms to host media content and real-world challenges of enforcement. We'll continue drawing attention to potential user harms during the bill's implementation.

The European Parliament and Member States’ representatives last week negotiated a controversial special status for media outlets that are active on large online platforms. The EU Media Freedom Act (EMFA), though well-intended, has significant flaws. By creating a special class of privileged self-declared media providers whose content cannot be removed from big tech platforms, the law not only changes company policies but risks harming users in the European Union (EU) and beyond. 

Fostering Media Plurality: Good Intentions 

Last year, the EU Commission presented the EMFA as a way to bolster media pluralism in the EU. It promised increased transparency about media ownership and safeguards against government surveillance and the use of spyware against journalists—real dangers that EFF has warned against for years. Some of these aspects are still in flux and remain up for negotiation, but the political agreement on EMFA’s content moderation provisions could erode public trust in media and jeopardize the integrity of information channels. 

Content Hosting by Force: Bad Consequences 

Millions of EU users trust that online platforms will take care of content that violates community standards. But contrary to concerns raised by EFF and other civil society groups, Article 17 of the EMFA enforces a 24-hour content moderation exemption for media, effectively making platforms host content by force.  

This “must carry” rule prevents large online platforms like X or Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, from removing or flagging media content that breaches community guidelines. If the deal becomes law, it could undermine equality of speech, fuel disinformation, and threaten marginalized groups. It also poses important concerns about government interference in editorial decisions.

Imagine signing up to a social media platform committed to removing hate speech, only to find that EU regulations prevent platforms from taking any action against it. Platforms must instead create a special communication channel to discuss content restrictions with news providers before any action is taken. This approach not only undermines platforms’ autonomy in enforcing their terms of use but also
jeopardizes the safety of marginalized groups, who are often targeted by hate speech and propaganda. This policy could also allow orchestrated disinformation to remain online, undermining one of the core goals of EMFA to provide more “reliable sources of information to citizens”.  

Bargaining Hell: Platforms and Media Companies Negotiating Content  

Not all media providers will receive this special status. Media actors must self-declare their status on platforms, and demonstrate adherence to recognized editorial standards or affirm compliance with regulatory requirements. Platforms will need to ensure that most of the reported information is publicly accessible. Also, Article 17 is set to include a provision on AI-generated content, with specifics still under discussion. This new mechanism puts online platforms in a powerful yet precarious position of deciding over the status of a wide range of media actors. 

The approach of the EU Media Freedom Act effectively leads to a perplexing bargaining situation where influential media outlets and platforms negotiate over which content remains visible—Christoph Schmon, EFF International Policy Director

It’s likely that the must carry approach will lead to a perplexing bargaining situation where influential media outlets and platforms negotiate over which content remains visible. There are strong pecuniary interests by media outlets to pursue a fast-track communication channel and make sure that their content is always visible, potentially at the expense of smaller providers.  

Implementation Challenges 

It’s positive that negotiators listened to some of our concerns and added language to safeguard media independence from political parties and governments. However, we remain concerned about the enforcement reality and the potential exploitation of the self-declaration mechanism, which could undermine the equality of free speech and democratic debate. While lawmakers stipulated in Article 17 that the EU Digital Services Act remains intact and that platforms are free to shorten the suspension period in crisis situations, the practical implementation of the EMFA will be a challenge.