Council of Europe says keep Russia in bloc to fight fake news

Russia should remain a member of Europe’s rights body so that it can be subject to future rules outlawing the spreading of disinformation, the head of the bloc said on Tuesday.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said the 47-member state alliance is in the process of agreeing a new legal framework to prevent the use of artificial intelligence to spread of fake news and false information.

“Since we were asked about the Russian presence, of course, it wouldn’t help if that country would not be a part of this framework convention,” Jagland told reporters at a conference on artificial intelligence in Helsinki.

“Because then that state or other states which were outside (the jurisdiction of the council) could continue as it is now. We want to set the legal framework for how to use artificial intelligence,” he added

Russia has been accused of being behind campaigns to spread false information in order to manipulate public opinion in the run-up to recent key elections, including presidential votes in the United States and France, and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

This May, an estimated 350 million voters across the European Union will go to the polls to elect representatives to the European Parliament – a democratic exercise which many authorities fear will be a target of online manipulation.

“It’s probably an educated guess that there is interest in certain quarters to try and influence that European election. But the extent to which such interference is swaying voters’ views is something we do not yet know,” Jan Kleissen, director of Information Society at the Council of Europe, told AFP.

Speaking at the Helsinki conference, French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet praised Europe-wide efforts to agree common rules against election interference.

“These are extremely interesting streams of work and I believe that we must reflect on all these subjects together,” she said.

Last autumn France’s parliament passed a so-called “fake news law” allowing judges to order the immediate removal of false information from websites during election campaigns. Opponents of the legislation accused the government of curbing free speech.

“It is not a question of limiting freedom of expression, but of preserving freedom of opinion,” Belloubet said.

Russia’s position inside the council, which promotes democracy and the rule of law across Europe and includes Turkey and Ukraine as members, has been in doubt since council delegates stripped Russia of voting rights following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia responded by suspending part of its annual 33 million euro ($37 million) contribution to the Strasbourg-based organisation.