The Commission has new rules on political advertising

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The European Commission has presented a new proposal on transparency and targeting of political advertising, new rules that should regulate online political advertising as part of measures aimed at protecting election integrity. The proposed rules would require any political ad to be clearly labelled as such and include information such as who paid for it, how much and which are the criteria for targeting audiences. The techniques used in political advertising should be explained publicly and would be banned when using sensitive personal data without explicit consent of the individual. The Commission also proposes to update the current EU rules concerning EU citizens who do not live in their native country and their right to vote in the European and municipal elections as well as on the European political parties and foundations.

The Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourová said: “Elections must not be a competition of opaque and non-transparent methods. People must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation. This ambitious proposal will bring an unprecedented level of transparency to political campaigning and limit the opaque targeting techniques.”

How the online political ads will be regulated:

Scope: Political ads will cover ads by, for or on behalf of a political actor, as well as so called issue-based ads, which are liable to influence the outcome of an election or referendum, a legislative or regulatory process or voting behaviour. The entire advertising production chain, whether it be a PR company or an online platform, will have to adhere to the rules.

Transparency labels: Paid political advertising must be clearly labelled and provide a set of key information. This includes the name of the sponsor prominently displayed and an easily retrievable transparency notice with the amount spent on the political advertisement, the sources of the funds used and a link between the advertisement and the relevant elections or referenda.

Strict conditions for targeting and amplification: Political targeting and amplification techniques, which use sensitive personal data, such as ethnic origin, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, will be banned. Such techniques will be allowed only after an explicit consent from a person concerned. Targeting could also be allowed in the context of the legitimate activities of foundations, associations or not-for-profit bodies with a political, philosophical, religious or trade union aim, when it targets their own members. For the first time it will be mandatory to include into the ads’ clear information on what basis the person is targeted and to publish which groups of individuals were targeted, on the basis of which criteria and with what amplification tools or methods, among others. Organisations making use of political targeting and amplification will need to adopt, apply and make public an internal policy on the use of such techniques. If all transparency requirements cannot be met, a political add cannot be published.

Fines for breaches: Member States will be required to introduce effective, proportionate and dissuasive fines when the rules on transparency of political advertising are breached. Under the proposed Regulation, National Data Protection Authorities will monitor specifically the use of personal data in political targeting and have the power to impose fines in line with EU data protection rules.

The proposed Regulation builds on and complements the relevant EU law, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA), which, once adopted, will lay out comprehensive transparency, accountability and systems design rules for advertising on online platforms, also as regards political advertising. The update of the self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation, based on the recently published Commission guidance, will also complement the proposed Regulation.

Update of EU rules on EU political parties and foundations and on electoral rights

The Commission has also proposed to revise the EU rules on funding of European political parties and foundations. They propose to reduce the co-financing rate of European political parties from 10 to 5%, which would be in line with that of European political foundations. Moreover, the legal proposal predicts an additional decrease in co-funding (to 0%) in the year of the European Parliament elections. This measure should help European political parties to increase the number and intensity of their pre-election activities and therefore increase their visibility on a national level.

Finally, the Commission has proposed to update the current rules on the European elections and municipal elections for EU citizens who reside in a different Member State to their state of nationality (mobile citizens). While there are around 13.5 million such citizens, very few exercise their right to vote in the European and municipal elections. In order to ensure inclusive participation ahead of the European elections in 2024, the Commission proposes targeted amendments to the existing Directives on electoral rights, including, among others, obligation to inform such citizens proactively of their electoral rights, use standardised templates for registration as voters or candidates as well as use of language broadly spoken by the mobile EU citizens residing at the territory. The proposal also includes safeguards for EU mobile citizens not to be de-registered from the electoral roll in the country of their origin.

Gong supports the Commission’s initiative for greater transparency of political ads and its ban to use sensitive data for political advertising, and this proposal is surely a step in the right direction. This is a real chance for the Commission to continue to insist on regulating big tech companies and it is on the verge of more ambitious proposals of the EDRi network, which we are a member of, to phase out all types of advertising based on using sensitive personal information, which would provide stronger support to users.

The proposals will now be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. To ensure that the 2024 elections for the European Parliament take place under the highest democratic standards, the aim is for the new rules to enter into force and be fully implemented by Member States by spring 2023, i.e., one year before the elections.

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Gong is the Center of Knowledge in the field of civil activism and building of democratic institutions in the society, within the framework of the Development cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.

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