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EU to Limit Political Advertisements Online; Facebook, Google to Face Fine if They Don’t Comply

Fearing political advertising could be misused to undermine elections, the European Union on Thursday unveiled plans to help people better understand when they see such ads online and who is responsible for them.

The proposals are meant to ensure fair and transparent polls or referendums, and also prohibit political targeting and “amplification techniques” used to reach a wider audience if they use sensitive personal data such as ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation without a citizen’s permission.

“Digital advertising for political purposes has become an unchecked race of dirty and opaque tactics,” said European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova. “Countless data analytics and carriers work daily with our data to try to figure out the best way to convince us to buy something, vote for someone, or not vote at all.”

She said people “should know why they see an ad, who paid for it, how much, and what micro-targeting criteria are used. New technologies should be tools for liberation, not manipulation.”

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

Companies such as Facebook and Google, the dominant players in the digital advertising industry, will face fines if they fail to comply.

Facebook, which has faced heavy criticism for its lack of transparency about political ads, welcomed the move.

The company, which recently renamed itself Meta, said in a press release.

Google said in a blog post that it supported the proposals and recommended that the committee clearly define political ads and define responsibilities for tech platforms and advertisers while keeping the rules flexible.

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

Under the EU plan, political ads would have to be clearly labeled, prominently displaying the name of the sponsor, with a transparent notice explaining how much the advertisement cost and where the money to be paid for it came from. The article must have a direct link to the respective poll or vote.

Information should be available about the basis on which a person or group of people is targeted by advertising, and the type of amplification tools that are used to help the Sponsor reach a wider audience. Ads will be blocked if these criteria cannot be met.

“Sensitive data that people decide to share with their friends on social media cannot be used to target them for political purposes,” Jourova told reporters. “None of the companies like Facebook are able to publicly state who they are targeting, why and how or will not be able to do so,” she said.

The system will be monitored by the data protection authorities of each of the member states of the European Union. National authorities will be required to impose “effective, proportionate and dissuasive fines” when the rules are violated.


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