June 5. 2023. 5:34

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German parties accused of breaching data protection rules

The civil rights group NOYB filed several complaints on Tuesday (21 March) accusing Germany’s major political parties of having violated EU data protection rules during the 2021 federal election campaign.

To attract more voters, the ruling SPD and the Greens, as well as the conservative CDU, AfD, Die Linke and environmental-democratic ÖDP parties allegedly engaged in unlawful microtargeting on Facebook during the 2021 federal election campaign.

The claim is at the centre of a series of complaints the NGO NOYB, founded by notorious activist Max Schrems, filed before the data protection commissioner of the state of Berlin.

“The aim of the complaint series is to stop microtargeting for online political advertising and the processing of sensitive political-related data,” Felix Mikolasch, NOYB’s project manager, told EURACTIV.

“This practice has been used internationally for many years: For example, in the US elections, the Brexit referendum, and now the 2021 federal elections,” stated Mikolasch when referring to targeted advertising based on personal data, including political orientation.

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Microtargeting practices

Based on the complaint, the authority will now examine whether the parties alleged use of microtargeting violates the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“The GDPR protects particularly strictly data on people’s political views. Such data is not only extremely sensitive but also allows large-scale manipulation of voters, as the case of Cambridge Analytica has shown,” said Mikolasch.

Despite repeated requests from EURACTIV, only the far-right AfD provided a statement on the allegations.

According to AfD, it is part of the business model of large platforms like Facebook, which is also represented in Germany, to document and analyse the communication behaviour of their users.

“Anyone who registers on one of these social media platforms will usually be aware of the practice of posts (including advertising) being played based on personal communication behaviour and accept them. It is up to the individual user to decide,” AfD MP Barbara Lenk outlined in a statement to EURACTIV.

NOYB, which was founded by Max Schrems, the renowned activist who brought down the EU-US data protection agreement through his various challenges before the EU institutions, bases its accusation on Facebook users’ lack of consent to process their politically sensitive data.

“The essential question is how extensively personal data processing was carried out and whether the parties used this data for their political advertising campaigns to target interest groups,” Stefan Hessel, a lawyer at reuschlaw, told EURACTIV.

Hessel is sceptical as to whether NOYB’s complaint will be consequential. “It also remains unclear whether the complaint has legal standing without a sufficient legal basis in the GDPR,” he added.

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Sensitive topic

Calls for a clearer ban on microtargeting have also become louder at the European level.

In early February, the European Parliament voted to ban microtargeting for political advertising on online platforms. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has already called for a complete ban for political purposes in 2021.

For NOYB, the practice of processing data on political opinions and views is something that must be addressed, particularly as it poses a threat to a democratic society, as it would allow politicians to tailor empty promises in a voter-specific way without ever having to justify themselves in public.

“Our principle is to point out the problem of microtargeting in democratic electoral processes. Since the supervisory authorities do not take action themselves, we consider this a good time to bring it to the attention of the authorities,” Mikolasc added.

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