Germany Assumes EU Presidency at Critical Juncture for Our Rights and Democracy

Germany gets to set the upcoming agenda for the EU Council, and we have a number of things we’d like them to work on in order to build a stronger, more democratic European community.

It’s an opportune time for Germany to be taking over the EU Presidency. Threats to public health, increased economic uncertainty, and growing authoritarianism make it an anxious time for Europeans, and the bloc needs strong leadership to steer it through the next six months. Germany has in the past been a leader on a number of important issues. The government has been keen to bolster the privacy protections of its citizens. It has been a beacon of hope for migrants and refugees as other EU countries have slammed their doors. The country is keenly aware of its history and has shown no tolerance for hate speech.

Now Germany can steer all of Europe toward greater things. In its role of the EU Presidency, Germany gets to set the EU Council’s agenda for the next half year. To help point Germany towards the most pressing threats to our rights and democracy, Liberties prepared one-page policy papers on each key issues that we think the Council should work on. From copyright to search-and-rescue operations, there are a host of important areas that need attention. Here are a few of them.

Protecting Our Right to Participate in Our Democracies

Citizens work through civil society organizations (CSOs) to keep our democracies healthy. They inform the public about important political issues, allowing people to make informed decisions. CSOs uphold the rule of law by checking to make sure governments abide by the law, and calling them out when they don’t. CSOs also allow for a truly participatory democracy by providing the public a channel through which to speak to their representatives.

Protecting the ability of CSOs to perform these roles should be near the top of the Council’s to-do list. Yet in many EU countries, certain politicians and corporate lobbyists would rather not have to listen to or answer to the public. And so they are attacking CSOs. For example, political figures and allied media outlets run smear campaigns to undermine public trust in rights and democracy groups. Many governments have created new highly burdensome administrative obligations to distract CSOs from their real work. And some countries are trying to starve CSOs of money by cutting public funding and blocking private donations.

Germany should push for EU-wide rules that bolster the protections of CSOs. This could include protection from abusive and frivolous lawsuits or a new statute that spells out the freedoms of CSOs across all member states. The EU could also use the new Rights and Values Programme funds to promote CSOs’ financial sustainability. This would increase their resilience against attacks and restrictions by building their capacity to litigate and communicate with the public.

Online Political Microtargeting

A key ingredient to a healthy democracy is debate. It is a good thing when we encounter views that differ from our own, and also have the freedom to share ours. That’s how we become more informed and more understanding. That’s how we learn to compromise. When we are exposed only to opinions we already agree with, healthy debate is stunted.

This is one of the dangers of microtargeted online political campaigns. The other problem is that it allows politicians to change their message to fit an individual's preferences. This allows a political party to say different things to different people, just to get their vote. But then how does the public know what policies they are really voting for? Microtargeting can only work if companies can get hold of our personal data to work out our opinions and preferences. Data protection rules are the antidote to microtargeting. But for these rules to be enforced, national data protection authorities need to get the resources they need. Germany should urge governments to properly resource their data protection authorities and encourage the Commission to support these authorities in other ways, for example by offering them training.

Artificial Intelligence

Microtargeting campaigns are driven by artificial intelligence, and AI is itself an issue the EU should give also work on. AI includes a trove of technologies, like machine learning, natural language processing, big data analytics and predictive models. And it can help create a better world in many ways, from fighting climate change to improving health care and reigniting economies.

But its use does present threats to our rights. First, for algorithms to become accurate at making decisions, they need to be continuously run and adjusted. That means they need huge amounts of personal data to 'train' on. Usually that's our data that companies are taking without our proper consent. Second, governments and corporations are using AI in ways that are damaging to our freedoms, including our privacy: constant surveillance, facial recognition, making predictions about who will commit a crime and targeted advertising. Germany has been at the forefront of promoting European privacy protections. It should use its influence with the Commission and other governments to secure an EU ban on technologies we know to be privacy-invading, like remote biometric identification.

There are many other areas where our rights are under threat, and we look to the EU for action. Strengthening the EU's ability to promote and protect democracy in Europe, proper implementation of Article 17 of the Copyright Directive, Revision of the e-Commerce Directive, countering online disinformation, fair treatment of migrants and refugees as well as legal protections for those who help them, are other areas that need attention.

Democracy is how we take charge of our lives and make sure our governments work for us. But to keep democracies health and free, our politicians need to tackle some pressing issues. Strong leadership of the EU from Germany can help steer our leaders towards the right solutions.