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Political Advertising in the EU: Bridging the Gap Between Politicians and Citizens

One of the most effective ways for politicians to get in touch with their constituents and potential voters is through political advertisements on the Internet. At the end of 2021, the European Commission proposed new rules on the transparency and targeting of political advertising (TTPA) with a view to safeguarding the integrity of democratic elections. Lawmakers want EU citizens to be clearly informed when they see a political ad, why they see it (e.g. because of an upcoming election in their country), who sponsored it, and why they are being targeted.

This new framework is an opportunity to address legitimate concerns about disinformation while also protecting the right to political expression. However, in recent months some EU Member States and Members of the European Parliament have proposed TTPA changes that would actually be counterproductive. Let’s take a look at the three dominant ideas that keep coming back and how to best address the underlying concerns. 

Don’t limit politicians’ ability to reach potential voters 

Some lawmakers recently suggested restricting targeting and amplification techniques in the future. They argue that user data should not be used at all to serve political ads to users, or favour a partial ban. While this is well-intentioned, such an overly-restrictive framework would prevent online platforms from delivering political ads to the relevant audiences.

Instead of questioning the purpose and advantages of targeting political ads based on users’ preferences, interests and feedback, this should be a debate about structurally increasing user control over the political ads they get to see and understanding why they are being shown. 

Making sure that citizens get to see political ads that are relevant to them is key to fostering civic engagement, as well as maintaining political pluralism and promoting freedom of opinion. In parallel, citizens should also understand why they see a particular political ad, which requires more transparency. It is more effective to give citizens control over what political ads they get to see online and why, instead of trying to restrict politicians’ ability to reach voters.

Similarly, renaming “amplification” as “ad delivery techniques” in the new rules – as proposed by some in recent months – will only add to the confusion. Hence, the Commission’s original proposal should be followed in this respect. The bottom line is that the total prohibition of these techniques would simply make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for politicians to reach constituents online.

Expect platforms to collect complete information, but not to make judgement calls

EU policymakers have also floated the idea that online platforms should check the accuracy of the information provided by political actors, and in particular those placing the ads. This would help to increase the transparency of political ads, they argue.

Online platforms are able to ask for certain basic information and make sure that forms submitted by advertisers are fully completed before running an ad. However, verifying whether that information is “accurate” or not goes beyond a platform’s expertise. 

As the TTPA discussions progress in the European Parliament and Council, the definition and criteria of what should be considered a “political ad” are also becoming more complex. The definition of what constitutes a political ad should be as precise as possible in order to avoid other types of ads being subjected to the new TTPA rules, which would be harmful to ad-based platforms that do not disseminate political content. However, deciding whether an ad is political or not is a judgement call that online platforms can’t be expected to make, nor should they be forced to take a stance politically. Civil society organisations, authorities, and other competent actors are much better placed to verify the nature of an advertisement.

Make stakeholders responsible for what’s within their control

Finally, there are EU lawmakers that now argue that all actors involved should jointly be liable for the content of a political advertisement being “correct”. While at first this may sound like a pragmatic solution to enhance transparency, it simply doesn’t take into account the actual nature of political ads. 

Online platforms simply cannot be held responsible for the information provided by advertisers or other actors. A legal obligation for advertisers and sponsors to provide truthful and complete information about their campaigns would be a more appropriate solution. Indeed, the advertisers themselves are of course best positioned to determine the political nature of an ad, the identity of the sponsor behind it, and the context of the advertisement. 

Making this the responsibility of advertisers would also help to align the rules that apply in the online and offline world. When it comes to political ads broadcasted on television, for instance, liability already rests with advertisers. What is more, it would be practically impossible for online platforms to verify all political ads that are being submitted based on the complex and ever-evolving national political context of each of the 27 EU Member States. Platforms should be able to rely in good faith on the information as provided by advertisers. 

To cut a long story short, EU policy and decision-makers should carefully scrutinise some of the TTPA proposals that have been floated in Brussels recently if they are committed to ensuring that politicians can continue to get in touch with citizens and explain their ideas to them via the Internet in the future. That is why the new EU rules need to create a clear, efficient, and carefully-balanced system that truly strengthens transparency and democracy in Europe.

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.