European Parliament approves a timid online political advertising proposal
Tomorrow, 2 February, the European Parliament will vote on the regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising proposal in plenary. Although this regulation intended to restrict the use of personal data to target online political advertisements, important proposals to tackle the root causes of data-driven vote manipulation were watered down during the discussion in the Parliament.
Tomorrow, 2 February, the European Parliament will vote on the regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising proposal in plenary.*
Although this regulation intended to restrict the use of personal data to target online political advertisements, important proposals to tackle the root causes of data-driven vote manipulation were watered down during the discussion in the Parliament. As a result, the regulation could enter the trilogues with weak provisions for achieving its original purpose.
This regulation will have a great impact on how our democracies function as it will determine what type of political information we get and how when we are online. It’s important to create legislation that protects people’s rights to participate in a fair and just political debate. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed what could be the consequences if we don’t stand against surveillance-based political advertising.
How did we get here?
In the very first opinions from the Parliament, there was a consensus to reduce the use of personal data in both targeting and ad-delivery techniques for online political advertisement (check what’s the difference between targeting and ad-delivery technique here). This approach reflects the call from the European Data Protection Board’s (EDPB) guidelines on targeting social media users and several NGOs, including EDRi, to prohibit the use of personal data in ad-delivery processes and ban the use of observed and inferred data in both targeting and ad-delivery techniques.
However, during the political negotiations, the Parliament reduced those safeguards and included the processing of personal data in both targeting and ad-delivery techniques. This would be possible through the explicit consent provided by users only for the purpose of online political advertising. In addition, the restriction of using inferred and observed data was moved into the recitals undermining its effectiveness in practice as the recitals help to explain the articles in the legislation but do not have the same obligatory weight.
Even though the intention to create a set of rules to regulate how to display political advertisements in online contexts is a positive step forward, the final outcome from the Parliament has moved away from its initial intention to call for a full ban on microtargeting for political purposes.
Microtargeting is used to reach voters with tailored messages, which act aims to exploit their sensitivities and fragment the political public debate. That’s why EDRi calls for the phase-out of surveillance-based advertising.
What should we keep in mind during the trilogues?
Given the current state of the legal text, we need to see a push for stronger regulation during the trilogues. If the policymakers want that the regulation tackles abusive practices such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, these rules should seek a complete ban on the use of special categories of personal data in the context of targeting and ad-delivery of political advertising. Countries like Germany, Croatia, Greece and Spain have already called for this.
Secondly, the potential removal of political content within a 48-hours deadline in the last month before an election or a referendum, if users report illegal content, is highly concerning. This could create not only an incentive for online platforms to remove any political content in order to avoid fines (affecting freedom of expression), but also could create a loophole that can be used by political opponents to remove online content during elections or referendums.
Finally, the regulation must adopt a stronger position against deceptive designs (or dark patterns). Democracies cannot function if people receive political advertising based on tricks that mislead them to read micro-target messages that may reinforce sensibilities, biases and even prejudges against political opponents.
Now, the official text is expected to be discussed in the so-called trilogues that involve the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission in a fast-track legislation debate. As EDRi has explained many times before, this decision-making process entails an opaque negotiation without public scrutiny and accountability from policymakers.
EDRi will continue to advocate for legislation that upholds democracy, people’s rights and freedoms. Together, we can shape an online space compatible with fundamental rights and democracy.