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EU warns U.S. tech giants to intensify fight against fake news

(Bloomberg) --Europe warned the world’s biggest tech and advertising companies that they need to intensify efforts to combat disinformation on their platforms ahead of European elections, or face regulation.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, acknowledged that companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc., had made "some progress," in particular with removing fake accounts and demoting sites that promote disinformation.

But officials said that ahead of European elections in the spring, more needed to be done to ensure adequate transparency of the political ad-buying process, promote cooperation between platforms and EU member states, and promote access to firms’ data for research purposes.

"We need to go further and faster before May,” European Security Commissioner Julian King said in a statement. "We don’t want to wake up the day after the elections and realize we should have done more."

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Employees work inside the "War Room" ahead of Brazil's runoff election at Facebook Inc. headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Even if it's not a full solution, the War Room is symbolic of Facebook's work to assuage public concern about the fake accounts, misinformation and foreign interference that cloud discussion about elections on its site. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

European officials worry that Russian-backed campaigns -- mostly through social media platforms -- could boost support for political parties sympathetic to Moscow in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

The EU’s warning comes in response to reports submitted by tech and advertising companies that agreed to a joint code of conduct in Europe last September, after the EU called on them to present a plan to fight the spread of disinformation online in Europe. The reports cover measures the companies’ took until the end of last year so may not fully reflect plans that companies have introduced since then.

The EU said it would carry out a comprehensive review of the periodic reports after 12 months. Regulation may be proposed if the results are deemed unsatisfactory.

As part of its efforts, Google and Facebook committed to deploying transparency tools for political ads in Europe after an initial roll-out in the U.S. Those policies require advertisers looking to run political ads to provide documentation to the companies confirming their identities. Disclaimers will also run alongside approved ads stating who paid for them.

Facebook’s chief lobbyist Nick Clegg visited Brussels on Monday to tout the company’s new policies around political ads, as well as a new operations center in Dublin to coordinate efforts to combat disinformation in Europe.

But the EU said it wanted Facebook to boost cooperation with fact-checkers and the research community across all of Europe, and called on Google to roll out its tools to other European countries.

It also noted that Twitter has prioritized actions against malicious actors and closed fake accounts, but that more information is needed about how this would restrict those who spread disinformation from promoting their tweets.