The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) recently published an Opinion on online manipulation and personal data, in which it called for enforced data protections.

The rules for data protection in the EU institutions, as well as the duties of the EDPS, are set out in Regulation (EC) No 45/2001. The EDPS is a relatively new but increasingly influential independent supervisory authority with responsibility for monitoring the processing of personal data by the EU institutions and bodies, advising on policies and legislation that affect privacy and cooperating with similar authorities to ensure consistent data protection.

"With devices designed to draw in the user and to maximise their attention, the possibilities for exploitation are vast," the EDPS said. "The feeding of large quantities of misleading, false or scurrilous information to people, frequently with the aim of influencing political discourse and elections, has been coined ‘fake news’ or ‘online disinformation.’"

Solutions to this problem "have focused on transparency measures that expose the source of information, while neglecting the accountability of players in the ecosystem who profit from harmful behaviour," EDPS added. "For the EDPS, this crisis of confidence in the digital ecosystem illustrates the mutual dependency of privacy and freedom of expression."

The EDPS opinion paper addresses the way personal information is used to micro-target individuals and groups with specific content, the fundamental rights and values at stake, and relevant laws for mitigating the threats. It concludes with five recommendations.

"The EDPS’s concern is to help ensure the processing of personal data, in the words of the GDPR, serves mankind, and not vice versa. Technological progress should not be impeded, but rather steered according to our values. Respect for fundamental rights, including a right to data protection, is crucial to ensure the fairness of the elections, particularly as we approach the European Parliament elections of 2019."

The EDPS opinion is the latest in a series of broad engagements by EDPS on the question of how data protection should be applied to address the most pressing public policy concerns. It builds on the previous EDPS work on Big Data and digital ethics and the need to coordinate regulation of competitive and fair markets.