Save our voice online!

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Komisja Europejska
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  1. Startet 29.03.2023
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European Union institutions are in the process of finalizing a regulation restricting the free exchange of opinions online. In practice, online platforms will be officially required to impose a "shadow ban," i.e. significant restrictions on their reach, on all political content. Not only those published by politicians, but also those by all of us who claim our rights - civil society institutions, online authors and ordinary internet users. We call for the regulation of transparency and targeting of political advertising in its current form to be abandoned and brought in line with its original goals.

Citizen-to-citizen discussion and citizen-to-power discussion are the cornerstones of a democratic system. Everyone should have the right to express his or her opinion on political issues and to convince fellow citizens of what he or she believes is right. No one should restrict this right or create a situation in which it becomes just an empty cliché when the citizen's voice cannot be heard.

As a result, plans by the European Parliament and the European Council to introduce a regulation "on transparency and targeting of political advertising"[1] must be of concern. In its current form, it could stifle political discourse online. It is in the final stage of the EU's decision-making process and could come into force as soon as in 2023. This is therefore the last moment to protest and to sign on to this appeal.

 In our view, the planned regulation of political advertising is as dangerous to online freedom as the famous ACTA agreement, which triggered mass protests in 2012.

 This regulation is an excellent example of the validity of the saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The initiators of the regulation, recognizing that the internet is being used to unfairly manipulate voters' opinions, concluded that the possibility of paid political advertising campaigns using sophisticated microtargeting techniques on the web should be significantly restricted. In accordance with the original idea, a web user could only be subject to such targeting if he or she explicitly and consciously agrees to it.

Such a regulatory proposal quickly slipped through the cracks, with its original meaning receding into the background, and as a result of a series of "improvements," we are presented with a document that will hit any online content that can be considered political in some way, and regardless of whether it is paid for or not, and regardless of who publishes it. Blurred definitions and vague terms used in the current version of the regulation mean that not only politicians, but also NGOs and individuals will be subject to it. In practice, the regulation will impose a "shadow ban" on people and institutions displaying political content, i.e. a significant restriction on their reach from which there will be no appeal. Our appeal, therefore, is not to regulate political advertising per se, but to attempt to regulate restrictions - disguised as concern for the quality of discourse and the integrity of elections, the space for civic freedom of expression online.

In particular, the definition of "public advertising activities," which according to Article 2, point 2b of the regulation, raises concerns: 

political advertising’ means the preparation, placement, promotion, publication or dissemination, by any means, of a message:

a) by, for or on behalf of a political actor, unless it is of a purely private or a purely commercial nature; or

b) which is liable to influence the outcome of an election or referendum, a legislative or regulatory process or voting behaviour. 

The outcome of an election or referendum can be influenced by virtually any content related to broader social life. The regulation thus strikes equally at all ideological sides of the public debate.



For example, when the regulation in its current form comes into effect:

 An NGO dealing with socially sensitive issues, such as discrimination against minorities, defense of Catholic values or promotion of certain economic policies, will not be able to target its social media messages to carefully selected groups. The content it presents will be available only to those who intentionally search for it.

 Likewise, the ordinary social media user who occasionally shares his or her political opinions with friends will no longer be noticed by his or her friends as such posts become lost in the flurry of cat pictures, food, and other politically neutral content so prevalent online. As a result, we are in danger of a mass infantilization of the internet through a deluge of triviality that will enter a new, unprecedented level. And yet political content deals with social issues that every citizen should be aware of, thus it also has an educational aspect.

 Founders of new political movements wishing to compete with major parties that often have budget subsidies will lose a cheap and effective way to reach potential voters. Also, parliamentary parties in opposition to the one currently in power will partially lose this opportunity.

 Materials published by youtubers, tiktokers, Facebook users and other social media platforms that contain political references (so difficult to define in the new regulation) will not appear in recommendations. Nor will their authors be able to take full advantage of the targeting of their content.

It is worth noting that one of the effects of the planned regulation may be the strengthening and radicalization of the information bubbles in question. Views and opinions, instead of clashing with each other, will be "locked in a closet" and only insiders in a given circle will know in which one. Those whose content will no longer be visible and recommended will see this as an attack on their freedom of expression and may take unpredictable steps as a result.

We call on all those with influence on European legislation –national policymakers, MEPs and the European Commission to revise the content of the planned regulation. We recommend that the regulation of online advertising should only apply to advertising campaigns paid for by politicians and directly related organizations during election campaigns. In addition, a clear definition of what is and what is not political content should be introduced to protect citizens from losing their public voice. In this way, the original objectives of the regulation can be realized, namely:

● "promote the functioning of the single market for advertising services;

● ensuring that the source and purpose of advertising are known;

● combating disinformation and interference with democracy in the EU" .

If the aforementioned steps are not taken, the attempt to defend society from manipulators will in practice end up stifling political discussion and creating a society of, as the ancient Greeks would say, idiots, i.e. people uninterested in the life of their own community and their own country. This is no way to build democracy and plausibly argue that it is the best possible system.

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