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Dutch public broadcaster NOS announced on 9 May that Facebook will suspend its rules designed to combat ‘disinformation’ and foreign political influence in elections for EU institutions. The exception came into force on 8 May and will be valid until the end of the month, according to the NOS. The measure was taken after the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission complained about the new rules in a letter to Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications in a letter dated 16 April.

The EU’s problems with the new Facebook regulations were originally revealed by Politico.eu, whose article was used by the NOS as its only quoted source. In April, Politico wrote that Facebook’s new rules required “all advertisers to register in the country where they wish to purchase political advertising.” Politico also very helpfully published the letter written in response, where it was argued that:

“Facebook’s policy would prevent European political actors from using Facebook, Facebook Messenger and lnstagram for their EU-wide paid communication campaigns. This policy would put EU political actors at the same level as foreign entities attempting to interfere in the EU elections. (…)”

Klaus Welle, Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, and Martin Selmayr, who signed the letter for their respective EU-institutions, further argue that Facebook blocking their paid-for advertisements would

“(…) encroach upon fundamental EU rights and freedoms, such as free movement and political participation. ln their current form Facebook’s envisaged rules would therefore hinder the exercise of EU electoral rights. Moreover, our Single Market rules establish the freedom to provide services across the European Union as one of its cornerstones. Thus, Facebook’s advertising rules preventing ad providers contracted by EU political actors to provide their services across the EU would ignore the way in which EU law works. Against this background, political actors affected would reserve their right to take legal action against such measures.”

Now, EU officials claiming a breach of ‘fundamental’ human rights is nothing new or out of the ordinary. The three signatories probably have a point though, when they observe that Facebook has taken a square peg to a round hole, in attempting to apply an American solution to an European situation. The irony of the EU itself becoming a victim of its fight against ‘disinformation’ is particularly sweet. Despite there being little or no hard information offered by the EU on ‘disinformation attempts‘, the proposed cure now proves worse than the disease. But it is here where the sweet irony begins to go sour.

The EU is of course able to write a letter to Facebook – and it is a shame they didn’t address the Vice President as Nicky (for historical reasons). Point is, they probably could have: the Vice President is Nick Clegg. Clegg was a MEP from 1999 to 2004. Maybe there was a “flurry of emails” between Nicky and Selly leading to the temporary removal of the rules for the EU. We don’t know, we will probably never know, and in the grand scheme it is not that important. All four people involved worked in Brussels at the same time, they must know each other. 

What is important to note, is that even a former MP and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, who was also a MEP, now working at Facebook, either didn’t think about the European situation, couldn’t influence or wasn’t interested in the effects of a blanket approach to combating ‘disinformation’. Not everybody has the political clout to do something about that. Seeing how the EU trumpets Facebook’s attempts (“The efforts of your company are both highly welcome and necessary to protect the integrity of the European Elections and the European public discourse.”) it doesn’t seem the EU is particularly bothered either. Provided it is not itself effected.

In view of the fact that the EU itself speaks of “huge political and institutional consequences,” the fact that it demands privileges for itself instead of a more careful approach speaks volumes. This does not bode well for civil liberties. If Welle, Tranholm-Mikkelsen and Selmayr were truly concerned about fundamental rights and freedoms, they should have taken Facebook to court and get a ruling for everybody in the EU. Instead, we see elitists in action arranging for their own privileges.