Days before Italy’s general election, the country’s privacy watchdog sent parent Facebook ( 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 interference through social media remains a major concern for regulators after years of raising awareness of how disinformation is seeded, spread and amplified on algorithmic platforms such as Facebook, and with democratic processes continuing to be seen as key targets for malicious influence operations.
Privacy regulators in the European Union also monitor how platforms process personal data – with data protection laws in place that regulate the processing of sensitive data such as political opinions.
IN press release regarding your request yesterday Warranty points back to previous The $1.1 million fine it imposed on Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandaland about the “Candidates” project that Facebook launched for the Italian general elections in 2018, writes [in Italian; translated here using machine translation] that it is “necessary to pay particular attention to the processing of data suitable for revealing the political views of the parties concerned and to respect the free expression of thought”.
“Facebook will have to provide timely information about the initiative taken; on the nature and methods of data processing regarding any agreements aimed at sending reminders and publishing informational “stickers” (also published on Instagram — part of the Meta Group); on the measures taken to ensure, as announced, that the initiative is brought to the attention of adults only,” the watchdog added.
The move follows what it describes as an “information campaign” by Meta aimed at Italian users, which it claims is aimed at countering interference and removing content that discourages voting – and includes the use of a virtual identification operations center of potential threats in real-time, as well as cooperation with independent fact-checking organizations.
The Warranty said the existence of this campaign was made public by Meta publishing “memory” (notes). However, a page on the Meta website which provides an overview of information about its preparations for the upcoming elections, is only now offering downloadable documents detailing its approach to the US midterm elections and the Brazilian elections. 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 “integrity of elections” — includes a number of additional articles on his preparation for elections elsewhere, incl Kenya General Election 2022; 2022 General Elections in the Philippines; and for General Elections in Ethiopia – 2021. Plus earlier articles on state elections in India; and updates on the second round of elections in Georgia from late 2020, among others.
But again, Metta doesn’t seem to have provided any information here about his preparations for the Italian general election.
The reason for this omission — which is probably just that — may be related to the fact that the Italian elections are early elections called after a government crisis and the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, i.e. .
However, the failure of Meta’s election integrity information center on the measures it is taking to protect Italy’s general election from disinformation suggests there are limits to its transparency in this key area – suggesting it is unable to provide consistent transparency in response to what can often be dynamically changing democratic time frames.
The Italian Parliament was dissolved on July 21 – when the president called for new elections. Which means that Meta, a company with a market capitalization of hundreds of billions of dollars, had two months to upload details of the election integrity measures it is undertaking in the country to the relevant centers on its website – but it appears that it has not so.
We contacted Meta yesterday with questions about what it is doing in Italy to protect elections from interference, but at the time of writing the company had not responded.
It will, of course, have to respond to the Italian supervisory authority’s request for information. We turned to the regulator with questions.
The Warranty continues to be an active privacy watchdog in monitoring tech giants operating on its territory, despite not being the lead supervisor for such companies under the EU General Data Protection Regulation’s One Stop Shop (OSS) mechanism (GDPR), which has otherwise led to difficulties around GDPR implementation. But the regulation provides some leeway for interested DPAs to act on urgent matters in their territory without having to obey the OSS.
So a comprehensive answer to the question of whether GDPR works to regulate big tech requires a broader view than collecting fines or even fixing the final GDPR enforcement decisions.