EU limits online political advertising; Facebook, Google, to pay fines for not sticking to them

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Concerned about the abuse of political advertisements to undermine elections, the European Union on Thursday unveiled plans to help people better understand when they see such advertisements online and who is responsible.

The proposals, which aim at fair and transparent polls or referendums, would also prohibit political targeting and “amplification techniques” used to reach a wider audience when sensitive personal information such as ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation is not given without the consent of the Citizen are used.

“Digital advertising for political purposes is becoming an uncontrolled race of dirty and opaque methods,” said Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Jourova. “Countless data analytics and communications companies work with our data on a daily basis to find out how best to convince ourselves to buy something, to vote for someone or not to vote at all.”

She said people “need to know why they’re seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used. New technologies should be tools of emancipation, not manipulation. “

The Commission, the executive branch of the EU, hopes that the 27 member states and the European Parliament will have discussed and adopted the proposals in national law by 2023, in time for the Europe-wide elections in the following year.

Companies like Facebook and Google, the two dominant players in the digital advertising industry, would face fines for non-compliance.

Facebook, which was heavily criticized for its lack of transparency in political advertising, welcomed the move.

“We have long called for EU-wide regulation of political advertising and we are pleased that the Commission’s proposal addresses some of the more difficult issues, especially when it comes to cross-border advertising,” said the company, which recently renamed itself Meta, to a Press release.

Google said in a blog post that it supports the proposals and recommended that the commission clearly define political advertising and set responsibilities for technology platforms and advertisers while the rules remain flexible.

Twitter, which banned all political ads in 2019, said it believed that “political reach should be earned, not bought,” noting that it has also restricted and removed micro-targeting from other types of ads such as cause-based ads.

According to the EU plan, political advertising would have to be clearly marked and the name of the sponsor would have to be clearly visible with a transparency that explains how much the advertising cost and where the money for it came from. The material should have a direct link to the poll or poll in question.

Information must be available about the basis on which a person or group of people is being targeted by the advertisement and what type of reinforcement tools are used to help the sponsor reach a wider audience. Ads would be banned if these criteria cannot be met.

Jourova told reporters that “the sensitive information people share with friends on social media cannot be used to target them for political purposes”. She said that “either companies like Facebook can publicly say who they are targeting, why and how, or they won’t be able to.”

The system would be monitored by the data protection authorities in each of the EU member states. National authorities would have to impose “effective, proportionate and dissuasive fines” for violations of the rules.

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