European Commission hits out at online Covid-19 scams, writes to tech platforms including Alibaba, Amazon and Facebook

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  • Wednesday, 25 Mar 2020

The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 334,000 people globally, has sparked what the WHO calls an ‘infodemic’. — SCMP

The European Commission has criticised big tech giants – including Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, Google and eBay – for the alleged “proliferation of deceptive marketing techniques” that exploit consumer fears over the coronavirus, according to a report from European media title

On Monday, Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice and Consumers, wrote to the platforms concerned, asking them to cooperate in removing “scam” advertisements for certain products that purport to prevent or cure Covid-19 infections, said.

“It is in the interest of platform operators like you to keep the environment safe and users free from the risks posed by illegal commercial practices, which may harm EU consumers in a moment where they are most vulnerable due to the tragic current events which are affecting the Union as well as the rest of the world,” the letter from Reynders read.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 334,000 people globally in 190 countries and territories as of Tuesday, has sparked what the World Health Organisation calls an “infodemic”. False information which has appeared online includes advice that vitamin D will prevent the virus, that boiled garlic water is a cure, and conspiracy theories that the deadly virus was created in Canada and stolen by Chinese spies.

Tech giants have recognised the problem of inaccurate information posted online by users and have already taken steps to strengthen controls — in China and in the West.

Amazon, the operator of the largest US online marketplace, said on Monday that it has pulled well over half a million offers and suspended more than 3,900 selling accounts in the US for violating its fair pricing policies, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Search giant Google has temporarily banned ads for medical facial masks amid the continued spread of the coronavirus worldwide. The company said it has an entire team monitoring the situation and evaluating policies “in real time”, blocking tens of thousands of ads trying to capitalise on public fears related to the coronavirus.

“For example, we’re seeing a rise in ads that may not mention coronavirus but are clearly trying to capitalise on it. We’re taking action to stop this on our platforms,” Google’s spokeswoman said on March 11.

Facebook, the world’s biggest social media company, has also been on the front foot.

“[Medical] supplies are short, prices are up, and we’re against people exploiting this public health emergency,” Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri said in a tweet announcing a ban on ads and commerce listings for medical face masks on Instagram and Facebook.

A spokeswoman for Alibaba Group Holding did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the EU Commissioner’s letter.

In early February, Alibaba announced on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, that it had intercepted and deleted 570,000 fake or substandard protective masks on its platform, removed 15 merchants for selling fake or inferior masks and reported five of them to the authorities.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post. — South China Morning Post

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