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Italy fires Meta urgent request for info re: election interference measures

Italy fires Meta urgent request for info re: election interference measures_632daabe902b5.jpeg

Days ahead of the Italian general election, the country’s privacy watchdog has sent Facebook’s parent (Meta) an urgent request for information, asking the social media giant to clarify measures it’s taking around Sunday’s election.

The risk of election interference via social media continues to be a major concern for regulators after years of rising awareness of how disinformation is seeded, spread and amplified on algorithmic platforms like Facebook, and with democratic processes continuing to be considered core targets for malicious influence ops.

Privacy regulators in the European Union are also watchful of how platforms are processing personal data — with data protection laws in place that regulate the processing of sensitive data such as political opinions.

In a press release about its request yesterday, the Garante points back to a previous $1.1M sanction it imposed on Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and for the “Candidates” project Facebook launched for Italy’s 2018 general election, writing [in Italian; translated here using machine translation] that it’s “necessary to pay particular attention to the processing of data suitable for revealing the political opinions of the interested parties and to respect the free expression of thought”.

“Facebook will have to provide timely information on the initiative undertaken; on the nature and methods of data processing on any agreements aimed at sending reminders and the publication of information ‘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 only of persons of legal age,” the watchdog adds.

The move follows what it describes as “information campaign” by Meta, targeted at Italian users, which is said to be aimed at countering interference and removing content that discourages voting — and involving the use of a virtual Operations Center to identity potential threats in real-time, as well as collaboration with independent fact-checking organizations.

The Garante said the existence of this campaign was made public by Meta publishing “promemoria” (memos). However a page on Meta’s website which provides an overview of information about its preparations for upcoming elections only currently offers downloadable documents detailing its approach for the US midterms and for Brazil’s elections. There is no information here about Meta’s approach to Italy’s general election — or any information about the information campaign it is (apparently) running locally.

A separate page on Meta’s website — entitled “election integrity” — includes a number of additional articles about its preparations for elections elsewhere, including Kenya’s 2022 general election; the 2022 Philippines’ general election; and for Ethiopia’s — 2021 — general election. Plus earlier articles for State elections in India; and an update on the Georgia runoff elections from the end of 2020, among others.

But, again, Meta does not appear to have provided any information here about its preparations for Italy’s General Election.

The reason for this oversight — which is presumably what it is — could be related to the Italian election being a snap election, called following a government crisis and the resignation of prime minister Mario Draghi, i.e. rather than a long-programmed and timetabled general election.

However the gap in Meta’s election integrity information hub on measures it’s taking to protect Italy’s general election from disinformation suggests there are limitations to its transparency in this crucial area — suggesting it’s unable to provide consistent transparency in response to what can often be dynamically changing democratic timelines.

The Italian parliament was dissolved on July 21 — which was when the president called for new elections. Which means that Meta, a company with a market cap of hundreds of billions of dollars, has had two months to make upload details of the election integrity measures it’s taking in the country to relevant hubs on its website — yet it does not appear to have done so.

We reached out to Meta yesterday with questions about what it’s doing in Italy to protect the election from interference but at the time of writing the company had not responded.

It will of course have to respond to Italy’s watchdog’s request for information. We’ve reached out to the regulator with questions.

The Garante continues to be an active privacy watchdog in policing tech giants operating on its turf in spite of not being the lead supervisor for such companies under the one-stop-shop (OSS) mechanism in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has otherwise led to bottlenecks around GDPR enforcement. But the regulation provides some wiggle room for concerned DPAs to act on pressing matters on their own turf without having to submit to the OSS.

Yesterday’s urgent request to Meta for information by Italy’s watchdog follows a number of other proactive interventions in recent years — including a warning to TikTok this summer over a controversial privacy policy switch (which TikTok ‘paused’ soon after); a warning to WhatsApp in January 2021 over another controversial privacy policy and T&Cs update (while stemming from a wider complaint, WhatsApp went on to be fined $267M later that year over GDPR transparency breaches); and a warning to TikTok over underage users, also in January 2021 (TikTok went on remove over half a million accounts that it was unable to confirm did not belong to children and commit to other measures).

So a comprehensive answer to the question of whether the GDPR is working to regulate Big Tech requires a broader view than totting up fines or even fixing on final GDPR enforcement decisions.

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