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5Stars defend their digital democracy in face of privacy sanction

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The online platform that fostered the rise of Italys 5Star Movement and its disruption of traditional politics faces a crisis — in the form of a data protection complaint more commonly associated with Silicon Valley giants.

The participatory democracy platform, known as “Rousseau,” lies at the heart of the 5Stars pitch to voters that it is a different sort of party, one based on direct consultation with members taking part in policy debates and voting on party matters.

Rousseau hosted the 5Stars primary campaign for the European Parliament earlier this year, for example, allowing members to vote directly on who would represent them in the May vote, with 2,600 candidates competing for the votes of 37,000 party members.

But the platform — and its mysterious president, Davide Casaleggio — are now fighting to defend their reputations amid growing criticism and legal trouble, the latest example of which is a €50,000 fine for failing to protect users personal data imposed earlier this month by Italys data protection authority.

The sanction is one of the first to target a political organization since Europes sweeping new privacy rules, the General Data Protection Regulation, came into force last May. As such, it brings the question of data protection and enforcement of the GDPR squarely into Italys fractious political game — to Casaleggios outrage.

Casaleggios protest underscores a little-explored aspect of Europes data protection rules — that their enforcement can turn into a political matter.

“The authority in Italy is unfortunately driven by an ex-deputy of an opposition group,” the Italian, who runs the Rousseau Association in charge of the platform, told POLITICO on a recent trip to Brussels. He was referring to the chairman of Italys privacy authority, Antonello Soro, a former center-left member of the Chamber of Deputies in the countrys parliament.

“This is obviously a way to attack, politically, the [Rousseau] system,” Casaleggio said, adding that the platform has fixed the issues since it came under investigation.

Casaleggios protest underscores a little-explored aspect of Europes data protection rules — that their enforcement can turn into a political matter, especially when fines are applied to political organizations in a fractious party landscape.

In a statement, Casaleggio said he would pay the fine while reiterating his criticism of the privacy authority, its use of the press to publish its findings and his allegation of a politically motivated act.

Antonello Soro rejected all of those criticisms. In a public response, the watchdogs chairman said he has “no intention of arguing with anyone, nor do I need to prove my independence of judgment.”

Wizard of Oz-like figure

The data protection fine adds to a growing list of problems for Rousseau and Casaleggio.

Last February, the platform was used to define the 5Stars position in a critical vote to determine how members in a Senate committee should vote on whether to remove Salvinis immunity from prosecution. The Rousseau system experienced multiple technical failures, leaving some users unable to cast their ballot for hours, leading to criticism that Rousseau is not capable of managing such important political votes.

In addition to its data protection woes, Rousseau has been plagued by claims of intrusions from a hacker who calls himself rogue0. The hacker in past years claimed several successful attacks on the platform, as recently as last February.

As president of the association that owns Rousseau, Casaleggio has come under particular scrutiny for his role in the 5Star Movements operations.

Political opponents and civil society observers argue that he may be using the platform to influence decision-making within the party. Casaleggio has been called the partys “gatekeeper” and a “Wizard of Oz-like figure” pulling the strings.

Most remarkably, Rousseau was instrumental in determining the fate of the Italian government currently in power. When the 5Stars leadership had to decide whether to enter into government with the far-right League party of Matteo Salvini last year, it first ran an online vote in whicRead More – Source