Political ads must be more transparent, new proposal suggests

The European Commission’s proposal on the transparency of political ads addresses digital data privacy, but may come with loopholes, MEPs warn.
Andrii Yalanskyi via Alamy Stock Photo

By Inbar Preiss

Inbar Preiss is a reporter at the Parliament Magazine

11 Jan 2022

The European Parliament discussed a new proposal on the transparency and targeting political advertising on Monday. With its work led by the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO), the proposal requires any political ad to be clearly labelled and include information on who it was funded by.

The new regulation aims to create a more secure environment for consumers regarding the processing of personal data. If the proposal passes, it will be mandatory to publish clear information on what basis a person is targeted and which dissemination tools were used particularly on online platforms.

Ana Gallego Torres, the Director-General of the Committee for Justice and Consumers who presented the proposal in committee meeting, outlined that this complements the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the existing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The lack of transparency on political advertising is a widely unaddressed problem surrounding electoral campaigns around the world, especially with online platforms gaining increasing importance on their processes and outcomes.

The current framework affects individuals access to a plurality of views, fragments the democratic debate and increases the risk of manipulation - Ana Gallego Torres

The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 brought this issue to the foreground. The scandal revealed that for years, Facebook was collecting users’ personal data without their consent for the use of political advertising, breaching the privacy of over 50 million users. This also showed the contrast between online and offline campaigning methods pre-empting elections.

The Commission had responded in 2018 with non-binding measures, such as recommendations to promote transparency, cybersecurity and awareness of disinformation and so on. However, this was deemed to be not enough.

Today, political advertising remains a threat to citizen’s privacy as well as to democratic processes. In March 2021, a Eurobarometer survey showed that nearly four in ten Europeans were exposed to content that they could not easily discern as a political advertisement.

“The current framework affects individuals access to a plurality of views, fragments the democratic debate and increases the risk of manipulation,” Torres said. “Citizens are being obstructed from fully exercising their democratic rights and national authorities from monitoring the correct application of the rules.”

The proposal  now being worked on by IMCO marks the first time the Commission is proposing  to legislate on political advertising online. Current regulation of political advertisement is focused on traditional media, like television and newspapers. That means that loopholes exist for advertisers on various other online platforms.

These new rules would apply to actors outside the traditional political sphere, including influencers, NGOs and foundations. The proposal bans targeting and amplification of political ads using sensitive personal data as defined by GPDR, but with two exceptions.

The providers of politically-targeted ads would be able to use information about user’s personal data such as ethnic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs or trade union membership firstly, if the individual has given explicit consent or secondly, if the user has regular contact with a foundation, association or other non-profits bodies.

The proposed regulation would not limit freedom of expression, Torres added, as content of political ads is not addressed in this case, “but will support accountability of the different actors involved.”

“It will not fundamentally solve the current problems related to electoral manipulation of information. My question is why not aim for more – like bans or increased limitations to micro-targeting and tracking-based ads? - Maria Manuel Leitão Marques

Alexandra Greese (DE), representing the Greens/EFA Group, argued that the proposal falls short by not completely banning targeted ads, referring to the exceptions outlined by Torres. She explained how micro-targeting vulnerable groups spreads misinformation and can create mobilisation towards a political goal.

"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 asked.

MEP Maria Manuel Leitão Marques (PT) from the S&D Group was also disappointed with the lack of ambition of the proposal: “It will not fundamentally solve the current problems related to electoral manipulation of information. My question is why not aim for more – like bans or increased limitations to micro-targeting and tracking-based ads?”

Yet on a general note, many MEPs also agreed with the proposal. For the EPP Group, represented by Pablo Arias Escheverria (ES) stated; “Citizens have to know what use is being made of their data and they have to have the option to consent or otherwise. We set a global example for transparency and democracy, and I believe this is one more step in that direction.”

The IMCO committee, with rapporteur Sandro Gozi (FR, Renew), will formulate its position on the proposal before entering negotiations with the Council to reach a final agreement. Gozi writes in a recent Tweet: “Who forgot the Cambridge Analytica scandal? To protect our democracies, the EU will set up transparency rules for political promotion activities, especially online.”

 

The aim is for the new rules to enter into force before the next European elections in 2024.

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