The digital services act as an opportunity to reimagine the online public sphere

Published: 15 September 2020

“What the digital services act has the potential to do is to reimagine the online public sphere. Europe should get it right not just for Europeans but for people around the world,” Ruth-Marie Henckes, Advocacy and Communications Officer at European Partnership for Democracy.

The European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) facilitates collective action aimed to strengthen EU action and reinforce democracy within EU countries through regulating the digital public sphere in ways that are conducive to democratic principles and practices.

What is the Virtual Insanity project about?

The Virtual Insanity project aims to get civil society to a consensus on how to increase transparency on political ads and what should happen on an EU level in regards to this.

Our research within the Virtual Insanity project showed that the ad libraries that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and any big social media platform have created, were full of false positives and false negatives, meaning that political ads that were clearly by political parties weren’t registered as such and vice versa. It showed a lack of compliance with the platforms’ commitment. We also noticed a problematic trend particularly in the Czech Republic and in Italy, where platforms failed to cooperate with electoral authorities.

For the last year, we have been debating the various options for limiting microtargeting, defining political ads and dealing with issue ads together with civil society experts. Since June, we have been drafting and building a coalition around transparency of all ads and details on what meaningful transparency could mean beyond what the platforms have already provided. All these elements are included in a joint statement with 31 signatories.

What needs to change for more meaningful transparency of ads?

Firstly, the user should have more information about why he or she is being targeted. Right now there is limited information given in the political ad libraries and all is self-declared, so the platforms don’t check whether the information is correct and who is inputting this information. As an advertiser, you can choose very specific details about your target audience such as location and interests, whereas as a user, you don’t know any of this information. You don’t have a clear and accessible overview of what data the platform exactly holds on you and what is used by advertisers. So, if I wanted to get ads from all political parties rather than the one Facebook knows I vote for, I wouldn’t have that option. I don’t have the option of saying give me any ads, I don’t want to be micro-targeted anymore. This is against the general data protection regulation, which the EU and national data protection authorities have to enforce better.

This also includes more transparency about who the advertiser is. The identity of the advertiser is currently not always visible to a user, meaning that I could be the one setting up an account and paying for political ads in Belarus right now, or anywhere. In this situation, I could be doing quite some harm to a country’s democratic process, without the level of scrutiny a democracy requires on political advertising. This creates a loophole for big money interferences in politics which creates an uneven political playing field. There is the risk that the online campaign environment is flooded with messages from those who do not act transparently out of their own accord. There should be some clear regulation around this because right now those who don’t play by the rules are greatly advantaged.  

What are the digital tech-induced challenges for democracy in Europe and does the upcoming Digital services act at the EU level represent an opportunity to address those?

Disinformation, finance in politics and polarisation – those three are the big challenges, alongside the underlying problem that a handful of companies – who are not accountable nor transparent – have a major impact on our online debate. Those challenges can be mitigated through securing more opportunities for competition, enhancing transparency, creating an algorithm inspection body, and involving civil society actors.

As most people get their news and information from social media now, the whole campaigning environment online has a major impact on people’s participation in elections. If you don’t get the chance to have a full picture of all your options for elections, then you can’t say that you have a chance of fair participation. Right now this is a real risk because people don’t have all the information they need, but very specifically targeted messages. The platforms create echo-chambers where real democratic debate with a variety of opinions is much harder to attain than in real life.

So, the upcoming Digital Services Act has the potential to reimagine the online public sphere, make the platforms more accountable, create an oversight over the platforms so that things like disinformation, polarisation and eco-chambers will be better understood and better dealt with by civil society, by media, and by governments. There are also some risks because whatever the EU does now will set a precedent for regulating in this field. There is a danger that whatever loophole is left in the DSA could be piggybacked on by non-democratic regimes that could then infringe on freedom of expression and censor their citizens. Europe should get it right not just for Europeans but for people around the world.

An underlying challenge is that the market is controlled by a handful of big social media companies. It will be important that new platforms that do a better job at mitigating some of those challenges have the space to grow and that users have the chance to move from one platform to another. Having said that, the DSA package will have an important impact on competition, in addition to its coverage of issues of content moderation and particularly content amplification.

It is essential to have an algorithmic inspection and an auditing body for the algorithms. Such a body would have some oversight over the algorithms that allow for disinformation to be amplified and to reach so many people and for sensational news to appear on top of people’s feeds whereas well-informed long-term investigative journalism tends to be buried deep down in one’s feed rather than reach the ones interested in it.

The continuous work by civil society, fact-checking organisations and researchers is another important way of mitigating those challenges. They are all doing tremendous work that reveals whole networks of allying forces online that pose as NGOs and create political campaigns.

A final tech-induced challenge to democracy that we’re keeping an eye on is the role of AI in government decision-making. That’s something we are looking at for the future as more and more, AI is being used in administrative processes and government decision-making around the world. Strong privacy rights and strong data protection rules will be essential to ensure that discrimination does not happen accidentally because of the biases in the algorithms.

Can you tell me a bit more about the EPD’s involvement in the Digital Services Act?

We have focused on the transparency element of advertising and what is interesting for us is that it bridges the question of disinformation, which often spreads through ads, and political ads, but also gets to the heart of the revenue model of these big platforms since they are advertising platforms. So, we are now looking to reach out to MEPs and EU countries to see if we can get them on board. The next step will be to reach out to the private sector to ensure that their demands for transparency are heard too.

Our role specifically is to coordinate and facilitate joint action between different civil society organisations. We are pushing for a joint civil society consensus, because I think that consensus could be sometimes hard and sometimes it may feel like it’s less strategic, but it is impactful to act as a united front of civil society organisations and show a will and effort to do something together.

What would you like the digital future to look like?

I find the concept of interoperability very interesting. Interoperability would mean for me as a platform user to be able to choose a different platform but also to be still able to communicate with my friends that are on Facebook and know that my data is not held by Facebook but by this other platform that I do trust. This kind of choice feels very exciting.  I would want the kind of guarantees for freedom of expression that we enjoy now to be maintained in the future. Ideally, it won’t be just us in certain European countries to enjoy those freedoms but everyone. I have also heard some interesting ideas about data ownership meaning that people would be paid for their data or remunerated in some way or that we can choose which company to give our data to in return for a particular service. I’m looking forward to seeing these exciting ideas take shape!


The EPD is a not-for-profit organisation with a global remit to support democracy, that brings together a network of 15 organisations specialising in the different parts of a democratic system. The EPD is the only democracy support organisation covering such a wide variety of specialisations anywhere in the world.