EU proposes tighter rules on political advertising

Brussels is preparing tough new rules to restrain online political advertising, imposing limits on techniques such as microtargeting and user profiling, according to a draft plan seen by the Financial Times.

Under the proposals, due to be published early next month, the EU will push for a more stringent code of practice on transparency in political advertising, cracking down on practices that increase political division while urging platforms to host a “plurality of views”.

“Micro-targeting and behavioural profiling techniques can rely on data improperly obtained, and be misused to direct divisive and polarising narratives,” said the draft European Commission “Democracy Action Plan”, which is being prepared by Vera Jourova, the EU’s vice-president for values and transparency.

“This process makes it much harder to hold politicians to account for the messaging and opens new ways for attempts to manipulate the electorate,” the paper added.

The role of social media in amplifying misinformation and voter suppression efforts has preoccupied EU officials since US president Donald Trump’s election win in 2016. Those concerns have been amplified during the coronavirus pandemic, which has spawned a wave of disinformation while increasing dependence on online news.

The new rules come as Brussels increases its efforts to curb the power of big technology companies. According to the proposals, the restrictions are intended to work in parallel with the proposed EU Digital Services Act, which aims to increase the responsibilities of large online platforms for hosting illegal content and the sale of counterfeit goods.

The rules will also aim to prevent websites hosting disinformation from making money through political advertising, and force social platforms to warn users about such content when it begins to gain traction. While signing up to the new code will be voluntary, EU officials will view companies who join in a more “favourable light” and as “willing to play by the rules”, according to a person with direct knowledge of the plans.

High-ranking officials have for months been calling for more stringent rules to curb the behaviour of tech platforms. Earlier this year, Ms Jourova said: “I think it’s clear that the time for gentleman’s agreements with the online platforms is over. We need more than this.”

EU officials hope to have the new rules in place “sufficiently ahead” of the May 2024 European Parliament elections, the paper added. The new rules will target not just traditional advertising paid for by mainstream political parties, but also anyone who pays for such content online, the paper said.

“We want to go wide, wide, wide,” said an EU official with intimate knowledge of the plans. 

The plans come as Facebook has faced growing pressure to be more transparent in its measures related to political advertising. In November, the company took the unprecedented step of banning such adverts ahead of the US election.

Facebook declined to comment on the leaked document, but a post dated September 17 by its head of EU affairs, Aura Salla, said that the social media platform endorsed Brussels’ “objectives to safeguard election integrity by fortifying free and fair electoral systems across the Union”.

The EU is also looking at the possible introduction of fines and other sanctions on foreign agents that spread disinformation, the document said.

European officials point to how the pandemic has triggered the spread not just of health disinformation but of false or misleading political narratives from sources linked to countries such as China, Russia and Iran. 

“The EU needs to use more systematically the full range of tools in its toolbox for countering foreign interference and influence operations, and further develop them including by imposing costs on the perpetrators,” it added.

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