Leading tech giants are under pressure to either disclose detailed information on buyers of political ads or pay hefty sums as fines.

Big companies like Google and Facebook are to publish comprehensive details pertaining to the targeting of consumers by political groups through online advertisements as per the draft proposed in the European Commission. 

The Commission is expected to unveil the proposal on November 23. With the objective of protecting elections from undisclosed political ads, discourage political parties from exploiting social media, and combat the manipulation of voters via microtargeting. Microtargeting is the practice that came under fire during the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018.

The proposal aims at boosting transparency around political ads on online platforms by forcing the world’s largest platforms to disclose more information about the buyers of ads and the types of people being targeted. The draft could stop European Union elections from falling victim to sneaky political tactics, and safeguard voters from being brainwashed via underhanded political messaging.

The EU executive stopped short of banning all microtargeting in spite of a public consultation showing a strong appetite for more harsh restrictions on how political groups find would-be voters.

The two main recommendations for policing political ads are as follows: The first would empower national governments to continue regulating these online messages while pushing for greater coordination across the 27-country bloc. The second proposes an EU-wide system of transparency requirements, for both social media companies and European political parties, as well as more coordinated enforcement if groups break the law.

In the draft document, the Commission supported the second option, which it said, “would best meet the general objectives of the intervention and would mutually establish a coherent and proportionate framework for political ads in the EU”.

Transparency over ads

Demands for the EU to revamp the policing of political ads emerged originally during the 2019 Parliament elections. Major platforms implemented new transparency requirements on who could purchase political ads online. However, those systems turned out difficult to enforce and were limited to how individual EU countries implemented their own rules around partisan paid-for messaging.

EU-wide political groups and European advocacy groups said the new rules made it challenging for them to conduct campaigns.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube have come up with their own voluntary initiatives in order to restrict interference and disinformation during elections. Twitter has barred political ads altogether, while the other two platforms have imposed limits — and a brief moratorium just before the U.S. election in November — but still allow partisan groups to target users with ads.

It must be noted that these initiatives remained unsuccessful to restrict the flow of money into online political ads. Based on data from Google and Facebook, millions of euros have been spent on political ads in the EU since April 2019, some by the Commission itself. In comparison, billions of euros have been spent in the United States over the same period.

As a result, some European lawmakers have called for an outright ban on targeted advertising. They highlight concerns pertaining to the use of personal information and risks to democracy.

In the draft text, Commission officials suggested the possibility of barring political targeted ads. In a public consultation as part of the internal assessment, EU officials concluded that 58 percent of respondents supported additional restrictions on targeted political ads, including a ban or opt-in by consumers.

The Commission eventually rejected such a moratorium, on the basis that smaller political groups would be at a greater disadvantage if they weren’t allowed to target groups of voters. The EU executive branch argued in the document that more transparency requirements, would “allow for greater public scrutiny of differentiated political campaign messaging and will empower citizens to hold political actors more accountable for their different messages and promises.”

“A general ban on the use of targeting was discarded as disproportionate,” the Commission concluded.

The political advertising proposals will be in line with the European Union’s content moderation rules called the Digital Services Act. That separate bill will impose fines of up to 6 % of firms’ annual revenue if they fail to comply with provisions that comprise regular audits of the methods through which firms are handling potentially harmful content, and demand higher transparency around how algorithms promote material in people’s news feeds.

From requests to hard rules

As part of the proposed overhaul, the Commission requires platforms to provide details pertaining to the amount spent on specific campaigns, the buyers, and whether the ad was boosted using an algorithm or not. Buyers will also be required to disclose the criteria used for targeting users such as their ages, gender, interests, and the time period when the ad was shown. These requirements go well beyond what companies already provide voluntarily.

The firms already provide some of that information through publicly available databases. However, Brussels is of the view that they should give all voters as well as third parties more detailed information about the buyers and targets of political ads. These rules, when passed after consultation with the European Parliament and member countries, would be mandatory and represent a drastic change in current voluntary rules associated with online political ads.

Experts point out that voluntary transparency requirements often remain unsuccessful in clarifying who is behind a campaign.

New York University researchers discovered that over half of Facebook pages that had put up political ads in the US during a 13-month period hid the identities of their buyers.

The Commission also will recommend tech companies adopt a set standard for classifying information about online ads. Currently, the information comes in different formats, making it impossible to compare ad information between different platforms. Tech companies would also need to comply with a definition of what constitutes a political ad that is accepted across the board.

If the proposal is accepted, social media companies will be put under obligation to limit the microtargeting of voters if political organizations fail to communicate to the companies that an ad is political in nature.

The Commission’s proposals are not exclusively limited to Big Tech, but will also be applicable to Europe’s political parties, who will be under obligation to provide information regarding their spending on political ads and how they are targeting people through the social media platforms. The EU executive proposes that EU countries adopt a mechanism of similar standards for national parties and impose the same transparency and enforcement standards around political ads across the bloc.

The Commission stated in the draft, “Self-regulation is not a viable option for large platforms. Private actors act as de facto enablers and or quasi-regulators of political ads.”


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