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Facebook is refusing to run political ads encouraging citizens to vote in the EU election

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Who knew that over-regulation of online speech, whether imposed or self-imposed, could end up producing “unintended consequences”?

Well that would be just about every digital rights and freedoms outfit out there that has been warning about this possibility every time governments – the EU included – have attempted to squeeze the likes of Facebook and Twitter into even more vigorously policing content posted on their vast global platforms.

Now one EU activist and lobbyist is discovering this truth, too. Alberto Alemanno, an EU law professor at HEC Paris, complained on Twitter that Facebook was “boycotting” the mid-May elections for the European Parliament (EP) – by cutting off access to its main service, but also to Instagram – to NGOs running “mobilization campaigns encouraging citizens to vote.”

Why do these campaigns matter? The possibility of a low turnout is a major concern for those currently in power in the EU and hoping to stay there, as they fear low numbers would favor anti-establishment forces. Hence the concerted attempts to, as Alemanno put it, “mobilize citizens” ahead of the vote.

According to him, Facebook’s decision comes “in manifest breach of EU citizens’ electoral rights and freedoms” and is effectively “banning pan-EU campaigns.”

However – not only is missing out on a cheap promotion tool with a huge reach like Facebook a problem for any campaign – but two high-ranking EU officials called out in this particular tweet – Martin Selmayr and Jens Timmermans – have also been unresponsive so far.

Could it be that they have no useful response to offer? Namely, Facebook’s policy to introduce more transparency in the political ads segment ahead of the EP vote came in an attempt to play nice with the EU itself – which has been putting the company under major pressure.

In a post updated on April 15, Facebook said they would begin “identifying ads related to politics or issues of importance within the EU” and also, in order to prevent “abuse and interference – all EU advertisers will need to be authorized in their country to run ads related to the European Parliamentary elections.”

In his letter to Selmayr and Timmermans, Alemanno notes that Facebook seemed prepared to make an exception to this rule and would apparently run ads from EU institutions across the 28-member state space – because only a day later, on April 16, EU officials intervened. But that’s not enough – so the activist is lobbying for the rule to be extend to pro-EU NGOs as well.

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