Tensions over data privacy cast shadow over potential Greens-Five Star alliance

A Supporter of Five Star Movement (M5S) holds a flag before the closing of the campaign for the general elections in Rome, Italy, 02 March 2018. [EPA-EFE/ALESSANDRO DI MEO]

A leading Green lawmaker in the European Parliament has hit out at Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) following revelations that Facebook is investigating the party over potential data misuse.

The ongoing tensions between the Greens and M5S over data privacy have poured cold water over speculation that the Italian party could one day join forces with the Greens in the European Parliament.

Facebook is currently probing the Attivista 5 Stelle application, as part of a broader investigation into the data protection operations of various app developers across its platform.

A report earlier this month found that Casaleggio Associati, the company reportedly responsible for operating the app, may have obtained the personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users without their consent, according to Linkiesta.it. The Italian Data Protection Authority – the Garante per la Protezione dei dati personali – is also looking into the case.

“This raises concerns for the independence of the democratic process,” Green MEP Alexandra Geese told EURACTIV. “This happened a long time before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed. Here too, there are serious concerns that data could have been misused to target users and their friends, without their knowledge.”

As part of the 2018 scandal, it transpired that Cambridge Analytica, the UK political consulting firm, scraped the personal data of around 87 million Facebook users without their consent.

A recent Buzzfeed examination showed that the permissions for data access required for the operation of the app included information about users’ religious and political beliefs, their location, interests, date of birth, as well as personal information belonging to a users’ network of friends. The app had been in operation in 2013 and 2014, according to Casaleggio Associati.

The ‘5 Star Activist’ application encouraged Facebook users and supporters of the party to share posts and take part in online campaigning by gamifying users’ behaviour on the platform. Activists were able to exchange points accumulated throughout their online activities for potential prizes, such as a dinner with party founder Beppe Grillo.

Facebook didn’t respond to EURACTIV’s request for a comment on the recent developments, but the app was removed from the platform last year.

M5S’s search for a group

Geese believes that M5S’s dubious stance on data protection issues should be reason enough not to accept the party into the Greens.

In early 2017, M5S unsuccessfully attempted to change groups in the European Parliament – from the right-wing Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) to the liberal ALDE outfit. The liberal party’s leader at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, pulled out in the end due to M5S’s incongruous stance on further European integration.

M5S became the largest party in Italy after the 2018 general election, and entered government. In this year’s European Parliamentary elections, the party won 14 seats, but has since been without a political group in the EU assembly. The Greens have been touted as a potential home for the party, even though they already turned away M5S in 2014.

But the Greens might be looking for new allies this time around. The Green/EFA group in Parliament is set to lose 11 MEPs due to the UK’s departure from the EU, going down from 74 members to 63. In this scenario, the far-right Identity and Democracy group would supersede the Green/EFA group, with 73 MEPs, something the Greens are acutely aware of.

Despite that, Geese has general concerns about working with M5S lawmakers in Parliament. An official inside the group told EURACTIV that they had been “disappointed” by M5S’s failure to support a European Parliament resolution in October that called for more EU efforts to support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Moreover, Geese highlighted concerns related to M5S’s close proximity to the Chinese state, amid widespread concerns within the Green group over the detainment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinyang province.

Italian Data Protection Supervisor

On the domestic level, reports surfaced earlier this year that M5S had been seeking to leverage their influence in the government to put forward lawyer Marco Bellezza as a replacement for Antonello Soro, Italy’s Data Protection Supervisor.

Bellezza has previously worked as a legal advisor for erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio as well as a lawyer for Facebook. Italian media reports have suggested that Bellezza had been instrumental in the Italian government’s position against the adoption of the EU’s copyright directive, which was adopted earlier this year. Tech giants, including Facebook, had also stood against the plans.

For Geese, Bellezza’s appointment would not bode well for M5S’s potential membership of the Greens, which comes on top of past data scandals that undermined the party’s reputation.

Earlier this year the Italian data protection watchdog imposed a €50,000 fine on Five Star Movement’s digital platform Rousseau, for shortfalls in privacy standards on the software, which is used by supporters to put forward potential laws and vote on decisions. The technology is owned by Davide Casaleggio, whose father Gianroberto Casaleggio was a co-founder of M5S.

Moreover, the party was recently pulled to the right of the political spectrum following the departure of three senators – Ugo Grassi, Stefano Lucidi and Francesco Urraro – who joined Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega party. This means the government has an even slimmer majority in the upper-house of parliament.

One Green official in Brussels told EURACTIV on Tuesday that moves such as these would “not help the party, should they wish to join the Greens in the future.”

However, the source added that Alexandra Geese “does not speak for the group,” and that in the past M5S have “shown respect for Green MEPs by voting alongside them on many important files.”

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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