European democracies have been under growing threat in the past years due to the rise of authoritarian politicians, weak political advertising rules online, and increasing threats to the press and civil society watchdogs.
The Democracy Action Plan is a useful statement of intent from the Commission, but it must now tackle the problems that exist head on and not tiptoe around them.
The Commission is proposing to address online political advertising rules in a bid to limit the microtargeting of voters on social media.
Eva Simon, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), said:
“Online political advertising rules online are increasingly seen as a Trojan horse that allows some political groups and malign influences to distort elections. The Commission’s intention to present a legislative proposal on the transparency of sponsored political content in 2021 is especially timely.
Improving transparency around who is placing which ads, and for whose consumption, is an important first step. But transparency itself will not solve the problem of echo chambers on social media, where the chance to listen to counter-arguments, and participate in political debates is reduced.
Besides proper legislation requiring transparency, we need to enforce existing data protection rules so that data harvesting and micro-targeting without consent is forbidden, and is sanctioned if it takes place.
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, we have seen how important elections can be manipulated by harvesting people’s data online and subjecting them to partisan messages without enough democratic safeguards in place.”
Eva Simon was a key contributor to a joint campaign in September pushing for full transparency of political ads online.
Media freedom also must be preserved
But democracy is not only about elections. It is also about making sure that organisations which help democracies function properly, like an independent media and a strong civil society, can work free from undue pressure. Gag lawsuits, known as SLAPPs, are a growing phenomenon in the EU and they allow the harassment and intimidation of public watchdogs or journalists for exposing wrongdoings, corruption or harmful practices.
Linda Ravo, advocacy consultant to the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), said:
“The Commission is right to want to tackle SLAPP lawsuits for the threat they pose to democracy.Dodgy businesses and corrupt politicians routinely drag journalists, rights defenders and activistgroups across the EU into abusive proceedings in a bid to drain their resources, damage theirreputation and destroy their lives. These lawsuits serve no other purpose other than to limit unwanted public scrutiny.”
“SLAPPs are a dangerous form of censorship meant to shut off the media and public watchdogs werely on to hold the powerful to account and keep the democratic debate alive. Yet, no EU country has decent rules in place to stop this abuse. SLAPPs are a problem across the EU, and so we need a solution that applies minimum rules EU-wide. We hope that a strong EU- anti-SLAPP law is at the core of the initiative the Commission has announced for 2021 as part of its Action Plan on Democracy.”
Linda Ravo authored a model EU anti-SLAPP law made public this week – an initiative of a coalition of more than 60 NGOs and media outlets meant to show EU policymakers that rules to protect public watchdogs from these gag lawsuits are within reach and that they need to take action.