Days before Italy’s general election, the country’s privacy watchdog sent Facebook’s parent (Meta) an urgent request for information, asking the social media giant to clarify the measures it is taking around Sunday’s election.
The risk of election meddling through social media remains a major concern for regulators after years of increasing awareness of how disinformation is seeded, disseminated and amplified on algorithmic platforms such as Facebook, and with democratic processes still considered core targets for malicious influence operations.
European Union privacy regulators are also paying attention to how platforms handle personal data – with data protection laws regulating the processing of sensitive data such as political opinions.
In a press release about her request yesterday, the warranty refers to a previous $1.1 million sanction it imposed on Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal and for the “Candidates” project launched by Facebook for Italy’s 2018 general election, writing [in Italian; translated here using machine translation] that it is “necessary to pay particular attention to the processing of data suitable for expressing the political views of the parties concerned and to respect the freedom of expression”.
“Facebook will have to provide timely information about the initiative taken; about the nature and manner of data processing in any agreements aimed at sending reminders and publishing information stickers (also published on Instagram — part of the Meta Group); on the measures taken to ensure, as announced, that the initiative is only brought to the attention of adults,” added the watchdog.
The move follows what it describes as Meta’s “information campaign” targeting Italian users, which would aim to counteract interference and remove content that discourages voting — and uses a virtual Operations Center to identify potential threats in the real-time, as well as collaboration with independent fact-checking organizations.
The warranty said the existence of this campaign was made public by publishing house Meta”memoriam” (memos). However, a page on Meta’s website, which lists information about preparations for the upcoming elections, currently only offers downloadable documents detailing the approach to the US midterm elections and the elections in Brazil. There is no information here about Meta’s approach to the Italian general election – or any information about the information campaign it is (apparently) running locally.
A separate page on Meta’s website – titled “Election Integrity” – contains a number of additional articles on election preparations elsewhere, including Kenya’s 2022 general election; the 2022 general election in the Philippines; and for the 2021 general elections in Ethiopia. Plus previous articles for state elections in India; and an update on, among other things, the second round in Georgia from the end of 2020.
But again, Meta doesn’t seem to have provided any information here about the preparations for the Italian general election.
The reason for this oversight – which presumably is what it is – could have to do with the fact that the Italian elections are an early election, called after a government crisis and the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, i.e. instead of a long-programmed and scheduled general election.
However, the gap in Meta’s electoral integrity information center on measures it is taking to protect Italy’s general election from disinformation suggests that there are limitations to transparency in this critical area – suggesting its inability to provide consistent transparency in response. on what can be often dynamically changing democratic timelines.
The Italian parliament was dissolved on July 21, when the president called new elections. Which means Meta, a company with a market cap of hundreds of billions of dollars, has had two months to upload details of the electoral integrity measures it is taking in the country to relevant hubs on its website – but it doesn’t seem to have done so.
We reached out to Meta yesterday with questions about what it is doing in Italy to protect the election from meddling, but at the time of writing, the company had not responded.
It will, of course, have to respond to the Italian watchdog’s request for information. We have contacted the regulator with questions.
The warranty continues to be an active privacy watchdog in monitoring tech giants operating in their field, despite not being the lead regulator for such companies under the one-stop-shop (OSS) mechanism in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that has otherwise led to bottlenecks regarding the enforcement of the GDPR. But the regulation offers some leeway for concerned data protection authorities to act on their own turf in urgent cases without having to submit to the OSS.
So a comprehensive answer to whether the GDPR works to regulate Big Tech requires a broader view than adding up fines or even recording final GDPR enforcement decisions.