Brussels targets online political advertising

The proposals are part of the so-called European Democracy Action Plan to be unveiled this week.

Brussels targets online political advertising

The European Commission will unveil proposals this week that aim to reduce the impact of online political advertising, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

The plan — to be made public by December 3 — will include potential new limits on so-called microtargeting of partisan messages across social media. That practice refers to the use of complex data profiles to target would-be voters with tailored digital ads.

The proposals will also outline revisions to the Commission’s existing code of practice on disinformation, a voluntary rulebook that Facebook, Google and Twitter have all signed up to to curb the spread of falsehoods online. It includes suggestions for better access to data on who buys political ads and how such messaging is targeted at voters, the two officials added. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The upcoming announcement comes a week before the Commission publishes its long-awaited legislative proposals, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, which officials hope will mark a massive shake-up to how the digital world is regulated. Those proposals will place greater responsibility on social media companies for what is posted online, and are expected to limit the alleged dominance of a few mostly Silicon Valley companies over the online economy.

‘Statement of intent’

This week’s package, called the European Democracy Action Plan, will not include specific legislative proposals, and instead represents a statement of political intent by EU policymakers to address how much of 21st century electioneering now takes place on social media.

Officials will decide on Monday whether to publish the proposals, which also include calls for greater digital media literacy and protections for free and fair elections, on Wednesday or Thursday.

The move to target the use of political ads follows similar efforts in the United Kingdom and the United States to impose stronger rules on online political advertising, an area that remains lightly regulated compared to what happens offline.

“We aim to make our democracies more resilient, to ensure that citizens can participate in democratic systems through informed decision-making,” Vice President Věra Jourová, the official who’s overseeing the upcoming Action Plan proposals, told the European Parliament last week. “We will do our best to ensure that confidence in democratic process only increases.”

Despite Brussels’ rhetoric, much still has to happen before greater controls are placed on digital political ads.

EU officials must conduct an impact assessment before drawing up specific legislative proposals, and any new laws may take years before they are finally approved. They are not expected to call for an outright ban on online political ads.

A major sticking point, according to one of the officials, was how to define what constitutes a political ad. That question focuses on whether to focus solely on paid-for content bought by traditional political parties and politicians or to include so-called issues ads around hot-button, partisan topics like climate change and immigration.

Another headache is how much sway the EU can have over elections, which primarily fall under national governments’ oversight. The aim of the new proposals is to focus on the global social media platforms, not domestic political groups’ activities online, to avoid Brussels being accused of meddling in local elections around the 27-country bloc.

Microtargeted

Facebook, Google and Twitter already provide some transparency on who is behind these partisan ads, although researchers have consistently flagged paid-for messages that have fallen through the cracks. In the run-up to the U.S. election, the platforms either banned or put a moratorium on such messaging in the hope of reducing the spread of misinformation — plans that were partially successful.

“Political advertising on Facebook is now more transparent than it is anywhere else, including TV or print,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s top lobbyist and a former U.K. deputy prime minister, told reporters in late September. “Political advertisers must be authorized and prove they are actually located within the country where they want to run political ads.”

While intense lobbying is likely to precede Brussels’ efforts to limit online political advertising, the EU’s early-stage plans could include setting a minimum threshold on the number of people that must be able to see such partisan content for it to run on social media.

That may stop so-called microtargeting of small numbers of voters, often a mere handful of people in a specific street or demographic, that has fueled political divisions in a series of recent elections.

Still, independent researchers and academics warn that focusing solely on political ads fails to address how misinformation now spreads online. Regular, non-paid content that promotes falsehoods now represents the lion’s share of such material, yet remains difficult to regulate because of fears that greater restrictions could hamper people’s freedom of speech.

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