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12th Apr 2024

EU to open up 'black box' of political ads

  • EU Commission vice-president Věra Jourová said if the rules would be in force now it would help disclose "who are paying for the ads fuelling the aggression in the society for political purposes” (Photo: European Commission)
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The EU Commission wants companies like Facebook and Google to disclose how and why they target people with political advertising, and who pays for them, in an effort to make online political campaigning more transparent.

In a proposal published on Thursday (25 November), the commission also proposes to ban political targeting and "amplification techniques" to reach wider audiences if they are based on the user's personal data such as religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity - unless the user gives explicit permission.

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The EU executive have been concerned that disinformation, and the misuse of political advertising, undermines democratic elections.

"Digital advertising for political purposes is becoming an unchecked race of dirty and opaque methods. The voters increasingly have a problem if the content they see is paid for or organic," commission vice-president Věra Jourová told reporters on Thursday.

The draft legislation wants companies - not only digital platforms, but PR firms, political parties, influencers, and data-brokers too - to reveal how many people they target with a political ad, for how long and the method they used to choose who sees the ad.

It wants companies to clearly label paid-content. Paid political ads will have to show how much was spent on the ad, the sources of funds, the name of the sponsor and the link between the ad and the particular election or vote.

"Without providing this information, political advertisement will be illegal," Jourová said.

She added that people "must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation."

"This is a 'black box' today," she added.

The Czech commissioner cited recent research which showed that 40 percent of people cannot distinguish between paid content and so-called organic content.

"The freedom to speak does not mean freedom to reach," she added.

"The sensitive data that people decide to share with friends on social media cannot be used to target them for political purposes," Jourová insisted.

The ban on using sensitive information is already part of EU legislation, but the commission hopes the additional rules will boost enforcement.

National enforcement

Companies that break the planned rules will face fines, but enforcement will be left to national authorities, including imposing sanctions.

Jourová said that if the rules would be in force now it would help disclose "who are paying for the ads fuelling the aggression in the society for political purposes".

"It is not a secret that protest, and the radicalisation of society, is fuelled by some political powers in our member states which seek to abuse the situation, and even to win elections," she added.

The new rules will be now discussed between member states government and the European Parliament before coming into force - the commission hopes - before the next 2024 European elections.

The plans received a cautious welcome from industry and advocates as well.

However, Victoria de Posson, senior manager at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, an industry organisation whose members include Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, said that "clarification" is needed on "targeting requirements".

On the other hand, the European Partnership for Democracy, an NGO representing 18 organisations supporting democracy, warned that the success of the new rules will depend on the implementation by platforms and sanctions introduced by all member states.

It warned that one member state can "jeopardise" the legislation if sanctions are not strong enough.

The organisation also warned that the requirements for "explicit consent" by the user for the processing of their personal data for political purposes could be open for interpretation by political and economic actors.

More transparency on EU media owners planned for 2022

The commission vice-president Vera Jourova highlighted Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and France - where developments in the media market have caused concern, and admitted the "state of the media in EU is not good".

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