European privacy group noyb files GDPR complaints against political parties in Germany over Facebook adtech platform

The European privacy rights campaign group noyb has filed six complaints with Berlin's data protection commission against every political party in Germany.

The European privacy rights campaign group noyb has filed six complaints with Berlin’s data protection commission against every political party in Germany. The complaints allege that during the 2021 federal elections, political parties in the country unlawfully processed voters’ personal data via Facebook’s adtech platform. noyb used data from users of the ‘Who Targets Me‘ browser extension, which analyses political microtargeting on Facebook, to build its case against the parties. According to noyb, neither Facebook nor the political parties who paid the tech giant to run microtargeted ads obtained express consent from the users whose information was processed. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) classes information on political opinions as so-called ‘special category data,’ which has a higher bar for processing.

As a result, noyb asserts that the GDPR has been breached. In a statement, a noyb spokesperson said, “We were able to determine that Facebook hadn’t obtained user consent for processing sensitive data, and that the parties had targeted users on the basis of (prior) political views. Neither the parties, nor Facebook had obtained consent from any of the users.” Felix Mikolasch, a privacy lawyer at noyb, added that “Any data on a person’s political views is protected particularly strictly by the GDPR. Such data is not only extremely sensitive but also allows large-scale manipulation of voters, as Cambridge Analytica has shown.”

Facebook does not ask users for permission to process their data for ad-targeting or their explicit consent for political ad targeting, and this consent vacuum is the reason why the company was recently slapped with several GDPR fines over so-called ‘forced consent’ issue (following earlier noyb complaints). Despite long-running complaints over Facebook’s consentless tracking, profiling, and targeting of users, political parties in the region have not stopped to think twice about rushing to partake in the abusive data free-for-all.

The wider issue with microtargeting political messaging at potential voters is that it erodes democratic accountability. Individually targeted messages aren’t immediately visible to anyone other than the intended recipient, making it harder for the public to hold political parties to account over what they’re claiming they stand for or will do. It’s also a boon to anti-democratic voter suppression efforts. Political campaigns can pay Facebook to pump out scores of different messages, promising the world to every type of voter under the sun, or just trying to dissuade people from voting for the opposition, without having to stand by any of these claims once/if they do get elected since there’s no clear public record of what’s been said.

The murky world of political ad targeting has thrown up plenty of scandals over the years, such as Trump and Cambridge Analytica. But it’s fair to say that there has been reluctance among lawmakers to grapple with the problem and clean up ‘dirty data’ tactics. MEPs have recently been pushing for proposed limits and improved transparency around political ads to go further, and are even talking in terms of amending the law so it kills off political microtargeting. However, it remains to be seen where the draft EU legislation will finally end up.

noyb’s action looks like a backup if EU lawmakers fail to come through. Their point is that an existing EU law – the GDPR – is being breached, so what’s needed is actual enforcement to stop the misuse of data. Simply fiddling around the edges with greater transparency into law-breaking isn’t an answer. The political parties must be ordered to stop breaking the law through microtargeting right now.

The issue of democratic impeachment is crucial and affects political parties across the board. Noyb’s approach of filing a complaint against every major political party in Germany appears to be a sensible strategy, given the inertia on this issue. The goal of this approach is to protect special category data and prevent it from being used to manipulate people’s choices. Noyb hopes that these complaints, filed on behalf of five individuals whose data was processed without consent by Facebook for political ad targeting, will lead to reform, either through regulatory action or a referral to Europe’s top court. The Berlin information commissioner will be responsible for considering these complaints in the short term.

Political ad targeting in Germany has been rocked by a scandal where the SPD and certain federal agencies used public funds to run political ads on Facebook. This scandal was brought to light by ZDF Magazine Royal, which collaborated with Noyb to raise awareness and encourage citizens to share their data for public interest research into political ad targeting. ZDF found that the SDP made a mistake and ran political ads on Facebook using public funds, which occurred over 600 times. This shows how ad platforms like Facebook can cause harm on a large scale. Additionally, ZDF’s research found thousands of political ads missing from Facebook’s library. Facebook’s excuse was that no system is perfect.

ZDF Magazine Royal’s research into political ad targeting by German political parties also highlighted various examples of deceptive campaigning enabled by Facebook’s ad tools. For instance, the FDP ran Facebook ads that directly contradicted each other, showing potential voters with ‘green’ interests an ad where the party committed to “more climate protection”, while simultaneously showing a different target group (frequent travellers) with a different message that there should be no “government measures, restrictions on freedom or bans” when it comes to “major challenges such as climate change.” In another example, a left-wing political group’s member of parliament targeted Facebook ads at ‘questionable’ target groups, such as those who expressed an interest in the banned Russian propaganda channel ‘Russia Today’.

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