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22nd Jan 2022

Socialist and Green MEPs find 'loopholes' in political ads rules

  • The legislative proposal bans the use of sensitive personal data for political targeting ads, with two 'big loophole' exceptions (Photo: Peter Teffer)
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Socialist and Greens MEPs on the internal market committee have criticised the European Commission's proposal on political advertising as lacking ambition.

"I'm disappointed with the lack of ambition of these rules which are little more than transparency," said socialist MEP Maria Manuel Leitão Marques during a debate on Monday (10 January).

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"It is clear we need to act… [but] this is a kind of placebo, water and sugar, as a medicine for an important disease," she added.

Leitão Marques argued that tracking-based advertising has led to a new dynamic in political campaigns - and that new rules will not fundamentally solve current problems, such as the risk of manipulation and lack of access to a plurality of views.

Tracking-based advertising has increasingly become a source of concern for policymakers, especially in the political arena — mainly because they tend to rely on large amounts of personal data and invasive surveillance practices, of which the user is rarely aware.

The legislative proposal, presented by the EU Commission in November, bans the use of sensitive personal data for political targeting ads, with two exceptions.

Providers of politically-targeted ads could use information about people's ethnic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs or trade union membership if the individual has given explicit consent or if the user has regular contact with a foundation, association or other non-profits bodies.

But such provisions are seen by MEP Alexandra Geese from the Greens/EFA as "big loopholes".

"Are you aware that on the internet it is extremist organisations the ones that are in regular contact with a lot more people than more centric or democratic organisations?," she told a representative from the commission.

"Aren't you afraid that with these exceptions you encourage extremist and conspiratorial organisations, giving them more impact and weight especially on the online debate?" she added.

"This could be a good proposal but it completely ignores the mechanisms of targeting and amplification that is engagement-based," Geese said, arguing for a total ban on all targeted political ads.

The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook users' data was collected without their consent for political advertising, brought into focus the risks linked to the misuse of personal data for political purposes.

The draft legislation will oblige digital platforms, PR firms, data brokers, political parties and even influencers to clearly label paid-political ads — including information such as who paid for the ad, how much was spent on it or what micro-targeting criteria were used.

This proposal is seen as a complementary tool to the Digital Services Act, a rulebook that will force firms like Google and Facebook to remove illegal content quicker and be more transparent about the way their services work.

MEPs in the internal market committee will now finalise their position on the EU commission's political advertising proposal before entering negotiations with EU members.

The aim is for the new rules to be in place by mid-2023, a year before the next European elections.

Overall, four-in-ten Europeans are exposed to content that they feel they cannot easily determine as being a political advertisement, an EU-wide survey found last year.

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