France must not betray European citizens on the DSA at the 11th hour
As civil society, we welcomed Minister Cedric O’s commitment on Friday to prohibit targeted advertising to minors as well as the use of sensitive data for ad targeting in the DSA. Now the French Council Presidency must follow through and protect citizens, 35 NGOs write in an open letter.
The open letter was sent to France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the French Presidency of the EU Council by 35 NGOs in the context of the People vs Big Tech Coalition.
Dear President Macron,
We are writing to you on behalf of the People vs Big Tech Coalition to express our deep concern regarding France’s failure to follow through on its promise to meaningfully protect EU citizens from the invasive use of their sensitive personal data for targeted advertising in the Digital Services Act.
This is a system that has been weaponised by foreign and nefarious actors to distort public debate and democracy – not least by Russia. It is also a system that routinely tramples on the rights of European citizens.
According to our newly published YouGov poll, an overwhelming majority of French citizens (70%) support a ban on the use of people’s sensitive personal data to target online advertisements. They are counting on you to secure this baseline protection in the DSA.
While we commend you for France’s tenacity in seeing through sweeping reform of the Big Tech platforms in the form of the Digital Markets Act, agreed last week, one of our movement’s core demands is that the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act take adequate steps to rein in the most invasive and harmful practices in online advertising.
This is why we were so encouraged to hear Minister O’s commitment on Friday, announcing that the DSA would include the proposal to prohibit targeted advertising to minors as well as the use of sensitive information for ad targeting.
Minister O rounded off his commitment with a reference to “how much trust there was between (the negotiators) to allow us to move forward and to take the most logical approach” on this all important issue.
To our dismay, that trust now appears to have been broken. Mere days later, the French Council Presidency appears to have diluted the provision on sensitive data in ad targeting by moving it to a recital and severely weakening it so that it no longer meaningfully protects citizens from this exploitative practice.
This means European citizens will continue to be exposed to intrusive advertising on the basis of inferences about them which they may never choose to explicitly share or meaningfully consent to – including sensitive categories such as religious or political views, health conditions, and sexual preferences.
Beyond the well documented harms to people’s rights, the use of sensitive data for advertising raises serious democracy and national security concerns. By segmenting the paid-for messages that are seen by specific groups of the electorate, dialogue between communities is prevented and disinformation can more easily thrive.
This type of advertising can and has already been weaponised by nefarious actors to distort public debate and influence democratic processes in Europe.
Russian interference in the US 2016 election via targeted ads was a clear example and, at a time when the world order is increasingly precarious and actors such as Russia seek to undermine the EU, the risks are now even higher.
The Digital Services Act is a vital opportunity to move towards a safer online advertising system which European consumers and businesses are able to trust and which safeguards citizen’s fundamental rights.
European citizens are counting on France to follow through on its promise to ensure that a final deal on the DSA prohibits the use of sensitive data, including the drawing of inferences about a person’s sensitive characteristics, for the purpose of displaying advertisements.
This is a critical baseline protection, already limited in scope to online platforms only, proportionate to the harms and necessary to achieve the aims.
If France wants a swift deal on the Digital Services Act, it cannot afford to betray European citizens at the eleventh hour. We hope that instead you will lead the way in ensuring a Digital Services Act that offers vital and overdue protections for European citizens.
Bits of Freedom
Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties)
Citizen D / Državljan D
Cultural Broadcasting Archive (CBA)
D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais
Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe – DARE network
European Digital Rights Initiative (Edri)
Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv)
Fix the Status Quo
Global Action Plan UK
Global Forum for Media Development
Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Irish Council for Civil Liberties
Peter Tatchell Foundation
Ranking Digital Rights
Sum of Us
The Coalition For Women In Journalism
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
The Signals Network