Data protection watchdog is understaffed – EU Commission

Meta executive Nick Clegg denies Facebook ‘deliberately spoonfeeds people extreme and hateful content’

The Irish Data Protection Commission is "understaffed and needs additional capacity", European Commissioner Vera Jourova has said as she announced new regulations to tighten rules regarding online political advertising.

Speaking at a press conference at Web Summit in Lisbon, Ms Jourova said further steps are needed to be taken to make tech giants act more responsibly.

The commission’s vice-president for values and transparency, she said she expected the Data Protection Commissioner to have adequate resources to be able to manage cases.

With most of the big tech companies having located their European headquarters in Dublin, the Irish Data Protection Commission has become a de-facto regulator for their pan-European data activities. However, there have been widespread complaints about delays by the DPC in reaching decisions in investigations.

Ms Jourova said the new regulations to be introduced for online political advertising later this month would cover the "entire production chain", and wasn't just about reigning in Meta, the parent company of Facebook.

The commissioner said sensitive data that people share, such as details about sexual orientation, should not be used for political advertising purposes. She also said the commission wants to bring more transparency into the targeting and amplification techniques used online.

“Either you are able to publicly explain what you are doing and who you are targeting or you should not be doing it,” she said.

Ms Jourova said algorithms were being created that push people “into the rabbit holes of hate and extremism, all in the name of profits.

“Big tech has really big powers but has not assumed responsibility,” she said.

She said the EU has a comprehensive plan in place to ensure big tech is more accountable while also empowering individuals so they have greater control.

“This is not and should not be a debate about true versus false, or right or wrong information. Freedom of expression should always be protected, even if this means the freedom to say stupid things. [It] is rather about the rights and obligations of those shaping and participating in the debate online,” she said.

The new legislation intends to bring order to the world of political advertising, Ms Jourova added

“Today, digital advertising for political purposes is an unchecked race of dirty and opaque methods. Trying to influence elections or behaviour of voters must be subject to tighter rules and meaningful transparency,” she said. “Our democracy is too precious to allow for this ‘move fast and break things’ attitude,” Ms Jourova added.

Hateful content

Earlier in the day, Nick Clegg, vice-president of public affairs at recently rebranded Meta, told attendees at Web Summit it was wrong to say Facebook "deliberately spoonfeeds people with extreme, hateful content".

“I don’t think riling people up into a semi-permanent state of fury is the best way to get people to look at ads,” he said defending the company against claims it puts profits over safety.

Mr Clegg, who addressed the tech conference via video link from Silicon Valley, was commenting hours after whistleblower Frances Haugen warned that people's lives were at risk because of Meta/Facebook's decision to serve up hateful content.

“This misunderstands the commercial self-interest of Meta. Advertisers do not want their content next to this kind of content, said Mr Clegg. “The vast majority of content on Facebook is babies, barbecues and bar mitzvahs,” he added.

Mr Clegg also used his time on stage to take a sideswipe at Apple, over its introduction of new privacy rules on data sharing that prompts users to opt-in to allow personalised ads.

“This is an old fashioned commercial land grab where they are using their dominant position in one of the leading operating systems to tilt the scales in their favour. It’s absolutely not some highfalutin, high-minded reason,” said Mr Clegg.