Be Careful What You Wish For: Twitter Temporarily Bans 'Get Out The Vote' Ads To Comply With 'Fake News' Law
from the why-does-no-one-ever-think-these-things-through dept
If there’s one consistent theme that we’ve talked about on Techdirt over the past few decades, it’s that attempts to regulate the internet based on a specifically observed “harm” almost always leads to bad outcomes. That’s because trying to regulate away a harm frequently fails to take into account context and the specifics of how such laws would be interpreted. For example, over the last few years, there’s been plenty of concern about fake news and questionable “political advertising” that is really just, let’s say, “propaganda” from parties wishing to mess up the democratic process, rather than actually encourage effective democracy. Because of this we’ve seen attempts to pass “fake news” laws and “online political ads” laws that clearly come from a place of good intentions (mostly), but the actual impact can be far reaching and lead to unintended consequences.
For example, just last week people suddenly realized that, with the EU Parliamentary elections coming up next month, and France’s new anti-fake news political advertisements law, that Twitter would be blocking the French government’s own “get out the vote” advertising campaign:
Since December, France requires online political campaigns to declare who paid for them, and how much was spent.
But now Twitter has rejected a government voter registration campaign.
The company could not find a solution to obey the letter of the new law, officials said ? and opted to avoid the potential problem altogether.
Of course, rather than realize that maybe the law they wrote was too broad, French government officials immediately… blamed Twitter. Oh, and they did so on Twitter.
La priorit? de Twitter devrait ?tre de combattre les contenus faisant l'apologie du terrorisme.
Pas les campagnes incitant ? s?inscrire sur les listes ?lectorales d'une r?publique d?mocratique.
Ce sujet sera abord? jeudi avec les GAFA lors du G7 des ministres de l'Int?rieur.
— Christophe Castaner (@CCastaner) April 2, 2019
That’s France’s Minister of the Interior saying “Twitter’s priority should be to fight content that glorifies terrorism. Not campaigns to register on the electoral lists of a democratic republic.” But, of course, that ignores that it was France’s own extreme position on the law that lead Twitter to conclude the best way to comply was to block all political advertising, rather than go through the arduous process of keeping track of which political ads are allowed, which are banned, and to provide an open database of information about all of those ads.
Other French officials also complained… also on Twitter. Minister of Culture Franck Reister — most recently seen eagerly cheering on censorship filters — also chose to attack Twitter for trying to comply with France’s bad law:
Il faut mettre fin ? l?irresponsabilit? des plateformes : @Twitter fait mine de ne pas comprendre une loi permettant simplement une meilleure information des citoyens en p?riode ?lectorale… alors que @facebook a d?cid? de l?appliquer, en anticipation, dans tous les pays ! https://t.co/b3PzSZhE6i
— Franck Riester (@franckriester) April 2, 2019
That one roughly says:
We must put an end to the irresponsibility of the platforms: @ Twitter pretends not to understand a law allowing simply a better information of the citizens during an electoral period … whereas @ facebook has decided to apply it, in anticipation, in all the countries !
Note the focus: blaming Twitter for deciding it was too burdensome to host political ads, rather than recognizing it was the French law that made it so. Also, pointing to Facebook as a “good example” of agreeing to go through the arduous process kind of misses the whole point: the bigger companies (Facebook is a hell of a lot bigger than Twitter) can more easily comply with these laws, while smaller platforms find it too expensive. But, no matter. France’s Minister of Culture assumes that all companies should have to spend tons of money just so his government can advertise on them.
Then there’s Cedric O, the country’s digital minister, who apparently thinks that Twitter should be forced to host some kinds of political advertising, because “the vote is sacred.”
Le vote est sacr?. Il est inacceptable qu?une campagne du gouvernement pour l?inscription sur les listes ?lectorales soit bloqu?e par une plateforme. Je recevrai les dirigeants de @twitter europe dans les heures ? venir. https://t.co/JySyN9mGfv via @Le_Figaro
— cedric_o (@cedric_o) April 2, 2019
Right. The vote is sacred. But it was your government that passed a law that made it quite expensive to host any such advertising. Stop blaming the platforms for reacting appropriately to your bad laws.
Either way, after getting so much pressure in France, the company did back down, saying it was “clarifying” its political advertising rules in France to allow “Get Out The Vote” ads. So perhaps this is a happy ending situation, but what’s most annoying is how French officials seem to think their own bad lawmaking is never the problem — and that internet platforms making rational decisions based on the costs of complying with overreaching laws somehow reflects poorly on the platforms, rather than on their legislative abilities.