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How A De-facto European Ban on Targeted Ads Could Pollute Your News Feed

Regulators are seeking more transparency on political advertising in the European Union. However,  it is worrisome to see that some policymakers are still considering a de-facto ban on targeted online advertising in this context. 

EU lawmakers recently suggested changes to Article 12 of the European Commission’s proposal on the transparency and targeting of political advertising (TTPA) that would further restrict the use of personal data for the targeting and amplification of political advertising on the internet, going way beyond what Europe’s existing data protection framework requires. 

If approved, these changes would redefine existing rules and introduce new legal concepts that currently do not exist – such as “observed personal data” and “inferred personal data”  – which would confuse European citizens and businesses alike. Even worse, they risk making ads that citizens see in their news feed on social media, or in online search results, much less relevant.

Targeted advertising is nothing new of course. It has been around for decades, not only in the EU but also as a core part of the global internet. It helps to ensure that users see ads that are interesting or relevant to them, it keeps the costs of online services down, and has also given rise to new business models. Nowadays, if you play tennis it is likely you will receive ads for new rackets or tennis shoes that might be relevant for you.

Many studies have investigated the efficacy of such personalised advertisements, including a study by the European Parliament’s own Research Service. It concluded that online advertising is a quick, flexible, and effective method to reach a large audience, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. 

While surfing the internet many of us click on ads, and that’s because they appeal to us. If the new EU rules force the randomisation of targeting techniques, for instance, ads will not only become more costly for businesses but also far less efficient in reaching the intended audience. Which means that, coming back to the example, you would get ads for tennis rackets even if your sport of choice is football and you have never set foot in a tennis court. 

Looking at how this would impact political advertising, it is likely that only the biggest political parties – those with sizable campaign coffers – would be able to pay the price for reaching all potential voters. Because without targeted advertising, political ads will have to be shown to a huge group of people instead of a targeted group with potential interest in the party’s political agenda.

Political candidates of smaller or emerging parties that run for office would have to rely on the random delivery of ads to a limited number of people, just hoping that their messages coincidently might reach some potential voters. This would greatly decrease the effectiveness of political campaigns and indirectly undermine political pluralism.

Instead of introducing a de-facto ban on targeted political ads, EU policymakers should focus on making sure the new rules are aligned with existing concepts in already-enacted legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation and the Digital Services Act. 

Let’s not forget that the goal of the original Commission proposal is to increase fairness and transparency in political advertising with a view to ultimately better protecting the integrity of our elections. We should not break an advertising model that has proven its value in promoting political pluralism and civic engagement across Europe, precisely because it allows for tailored messages that improve users’ internet experience.

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.