It is time for the EU to be an ally for freedom of expression
As Spain assumes the presidency of the European Union, the bloc needs to reflect on the draft political advertising regulations
21 Jul 23

Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Threats to freedom of speech can come from a variety of places. Sometimes it is tyrants seeking to crush dissent. But it can also come from well-meaning attempts to improve society, that come with unintended consequences. The European Union is currently discussing ways of regulating online political advertising and is in danger of creating mechanisms which will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

So as Spain assumes the rotating presidency of the EU, now is the time to take stock, reflect on debates so far and recommit the European Union as an ally of freedom of expression. I’ve written to the Prime Minister of Spain urging a rethink.

Dear Senor Sanchez,

With Spain having assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it is an opportune moment for the European Union to reflect on the draft Political Advertising regulations.

Index on Censorship has raised a series of concerns about the impact that the proposals will have on free speech and the power that it places in the hands of tech companies to arbitrate on what is and what isn’t legitimate free expression.

We know that countering disinformation and bringing transparency to political processes is good for democracy. We support that activity around the world where dissidents are using their voice to stand up against totalitarian regimes.

Unfortunately, the draft proposals which are currently being considered in trialogue have the potential to have a chilling effect on free speech across the European Union.

We have welcomed the recognition by the European Union that any new rules governing political advertising in the digital sphere should only apply to content promoted through paid-for political advertising services.

The original “catch-all” proposals would have wrongly sought to impose restrictions on journalists, individual citizens expressing their own point of view and/or civil society campaigns seeking to promote a cause or policy.

It would have seen unacceptable interference into free speech and free expression with the work of journalists, reporting on elections or referendums, subject to state-determined censorship administered by algorithms within big tech corporations.

Imagine if, in your own upcoming general election, a citizen wishing to express how they intend to vote via their own social media had to be regulated? It would reduce the citizen’s right to speak their mind. 

However, while some advancement has been made on the scope of the proposals, we still have serious concerns about the processes for flagging content, how that should be regulated and how the proposals will safeguard against bad faith actors.

Platforms are risk adverse and when faced with new rules requiring them to consider concerns raised about content or face fines themselves, bad faith actors will overwhelm those systems and subsequently content will be removed while it is assessed.

Misuse and these unintended consequences will be the tools of censorship for those seeking to silence dissent and close down campaigns and campaigners they disagree with.

As you assess your priorities for the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, I would urge you to be an ally for freedom of expression.

Yours sincerely

Ruth Anderson