The European Parliament is toughening up the rules on political advertising, with the aim of making elections more transparent and less vulnerable to interference.
The main change proposed by the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) is to allow advertises only to use personal data that’s been given to them explicitly for the purpose of political advertising.
This effectively bans the practice of microtargeting, which sees individuals receiving ads on the basis of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or other individual characteristics. Using the data of children will be completely banned.
It’s not entirely clear, however, whether restrictions will apply to the use of personal data to target individuals via letter, email, or text messaging at large scale; and it appears that organic, self-posted content will be excluded from the proposed targeting rules.
Meanwhile, MEPs are also proposing a ban on non-EU-based actors being allowed to pay for political ads in the EU.
“From the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns we have learned that you can very effectively and subconsciously manipulate a voter if you know which message works on them,” says Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer. “While many parties are using personalized targeting, it benefits mostly populist and anti-democratic forces.”
The committee has also introduced new rules on transparency, requiring much more information to be made easily available to citizens, authorities, and journalists. As part of this, an online repository containing all online political advertisements and related data would be set up.
It should be easier to establish who is financing an advert, how much was paid for it, and where the money came from. It will also be made clear when an advertisement has been suspended for violating the rules, on which specific groups of individuals were targeted and what personal data was used, along with the engagement it received.
And there are also new rules on enforcement, with the option of periodic penalties for repeated violations and a requirement for large ad service providers to suspend their services for 15 days with a particular client in the event of ‘serious and systemic’ infringements.
Meanwhile, the European Data Protection Board is to be allowed to take over an investigation into an infringement and enforce the rules if, for instance, a data protection authority such as the Irish DPA fails to do so – a situation that’s recently been a bone of contention.
“Once in force, we hope by 2023, elections in the EU will be more transparent and resistant to manipulation as witnessed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” says Rapporteur Sandro Gozi.
“This report will make abusive online political advertising a thing of the past by making it impossible to prey on people’s specific weaknesses. It will also make political actors more accountable for the adverts they disseminate. And when rules are broken, we will be able to impose better sanctions in an equal way across the EU.”