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Belgium’s YouTube stars wage war on transparency rules

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Faced with the enforcement of new transparency requirements, some of Belgium’s most influential social media personalities are revolting.

The country’s federal economic authority has in recent weeks followed up on rules that require content creators who regularly feature brand advertising to register as companies and to list the company’s official registration number, its address and an e-mail address on their social media accounts. While the rules were already introduced in April, some influencers have now flagged that authorities are threatening them with heavy fines for non-compliance.

The problem? For many influencers, their company’s address is also their home address, prompting pushback from YouTube, Instagram and TikTok content creators against what they see as an overreaching privacy violation. 

The YouTuber Acid — a gamer-turned-social commentator whose brash style has gotten him into trouble with YouTube as well as other local online celebrities like the wholesome couple Celine & Michiel in the past — has a following of 450,000 subscribers on Google’s video streaming site. He earlier this week produced a nine-minute video in which he lashed out against the rules.

Because Acid records his YouTube videos in his bedroom, the new rules endanger his privacy, he said: “You’re going to the bakery to buy bread. But you don’t come to me. There’s nothing here. I live here. There’s no added value if I publish my home address on Instagram.” 

However, Acid has a limited time frame to comply, according to a screenshot from a letter from the economic inspection he featured in the video. “Starting today, I have 14 days to do whatever they say; otherwise I have to pay €80,000 to the government,” he alleged, adding that he “truly [wished] this was clickbait.”

Other popular creators, like Average Rob — known for his comical takes on Belgian culture as well as absurd dancing style — supported Acid and voiced similar criticism. It turned the row into a politically hot topic.

Flemish Media Minister Benjamin Dalle (on the left) | Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Flemish Media Minister Benjamin Dalle has already asked the federal junior minister for consumer protection Eva De Bleeker to reconsider the rules. In a letter sent Monday and seen by POLITICO, Dalle wrote: “Influencers and content creators often work as a private person and develop their activities out of their home address. To mandate that they notify their address on all channels seems to be at odds with respecting their privacy.”

Belgium’s rules follow EU guidance on unfair business practices, published in December last year, that included provisions for influencer marketing. It’s part of the 2020 EU’s Consumer Agenda, which stated that consumers should have “a comparable level of protection and fairness online” to what they enjoy offline.

Content creators with large followings online are often courted by brands to push a product or message — and their followers don’t always see or understand the difference between sponsored and organic content.  

The EU’s December guidance addressed the need for transparency in posts, while the Belgian economic authority has reminded influencers that when they feature a product or service and received compensation for it — including nonmonetary compensation — they should make this explicit to their followers by tagging sponsored posts with keywords like “advertising.”

The requirements for labeling sponsored content or setting up a company didn’t compel much backlash. Acid, for example, has an established company, which he clearly refers to on his merchandising site. 

The transparency requirements, however, are now at the center of a fight between “the internet and the government,” as Acid described it in his video. The Belgian economic authority didn’t clarify whether the requirements to disclose company data were based on the EU guidance.

Even in the face of heavy fines — the economic inspection confirmed this could range from €26 to €10,000 euros, and could be multiplied by eight to compensate for inflation — content creators are determined to maintain their privacy.

“I’m not gonna reveal my address on social media. Who’s the idiot making those decisions? Major privacy breach,” Average Rob tweeted.

This article was updated.

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