Press play to listen to this article
Brussels has its sights set on political ads.
The European Commission will announce new proposals as soon as Thursday aimed at forcing the likes of Facebook, Google and scores of local political parties to publish details on how they target voters with paid-for messaging, or face potential sizable fines, according to two officials and a draft of the rules obtained by POLITICO.
Under the new efforts — tied to separate rules known as the Digital Services Act, which will police content and products more broadly across the internet — the world’s largest social media companies will have to clamp down on political groups’ use of these platforms to pinpoint messages to online users based on sensitive data like gender or sexual orientation.
So-called microtargeting, or the ability for small numbers of people to be targeted with specific ads, will be not be outlawed. But European Union officials hope the new proposals will protect the bloc’s democracies from the worst abuses on social media, including foreign governments using political advertising to sow dissent and distrust among local electorates. The proposals are expected to make it harder for social media platforms and political actors to use complex tools, often driven by artificial intelligence, to pepper people with partisan messaging ahead of elections.
“I am really convinced that microtargeting, based on race, religion, sexual orientation and several other sensitive data, gains of data should be banned,” European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, who will announce the proposals, told the European Business Summit last week.
The rules still must be approved by the European Parliament and EU member countries, with the final proposals likely to become law ahead of the next European Parliament elections in 2024.
Still, the upcoming announcement marks Brussels’ latest foray into the digital world, along with revamped competition proposals known as the Digital Markets Act, and the Digital Services Act to be approved by EU member countries on November 25.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Voters unlikely to see a difference
Brussels wants to outlaw the most egregious uses of political ads, but these paid-for messages will still pop up in people’s social media feeds.
EU officials haven’t categorically banned this type of ads, so in the build-up to national elections — like in France next year and ahead of the 2024 European Parliament election — political groups and third-party lobbying firms will still be able to buy social media content targeting would-be supporters.
By focusing on political ads (whereas the Digital Services Act takes a broader look at online content, including illegal material and misinformation), experts also warn that EU citizens may still be susceptible to partisan messaging appearing organically in their feeds. Such non-paid-for material is not in the scope of the new proposals.
New obligations for Big Tech
Facebook, Google and their peers will face new transparency requirements, including mandatory disclosures of ads bought by political parties, campaigners and other third-party groups. The companies already provide such information voluntarily via searchable online databases, though the Commission’s proposals would make such systems obligatory.
The type of information that would be disclosed includes the amount spent on particular political ads, how they are amplified and shared and what data is used to pinpoint would-be supporters online. Companies will also have to carry out publicly available assessments on how political ad targeting would impact elections in specific countries, as well as outline how political groups use their networks to talk directly with voters.
A major new restriction will be a ban on using so-called sensitive data like someone’s political or religious beliefs to target them with online political ads throughout the year. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced on November 9 it would stop this practice — although groups can still target people with ads via other targeting tools, including the uploading of email addresses or the use of people’s location.
Political parties are on the hook, too
The likes of the European People’s Party, Renew Europe and other cross-border EU political groups will similarly face greater scrutiny on how they target Europeans with political ads. This includes requirements to disclose to the public what data they use to pinpoint voters online, restrictions on microtargeting practices and requirements to make public all political ads they run across the bloc.
Many political groups rely heavily on social media advertising, but they faced difficulties ahead of the 2019 European Parliamentary election due to social media companies’ restrictions stopping political groups from one EU country from purchasing ads running in another.
Those issues were subsequently resolved. Yet members of the European Parliament are at loggerheads over pursuing greater restrictions on online ads, both via these new proposals and the Digital Services Act. They now have the opportunity to weigh in on how their own political groups could potentially be hamstrung in buying paid-for messages across the bloc.
Fight ahead: It’s all about the definitions
The Commission decided to create a one-size-fits-all definition of what constituted a political ad. That includes messages from politicians and political groups, as well as issues-based ads related to specific legislation or elections.
Countries like Hungary and Poland, however, which are already angry at Brussels at the perceived meddling in their domestic politics, are unlikely to welcome the EU deciding what represents a political ad domestically — though activists warn an EU-wide definition is crucial to avoid certain governments unfairly clamping down on paid-for messages criticizing a country’s current political leaders. Still, it will be up to national regulators to enforce the new political ad rules.
What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe
EU officials hope the new political ad proposals will jumpstart other jurisdictions’ efforts to similarly stop opaque paid-for messaging from spreading like wildfire ahead of national elections.
Ahead of last year’s presidential election in the U.S., the likes of Facebook and Google stopped political ads from appearing, although that ban only lasted a couple of months. Other countries, including Brazil and India, have also been subject to coordinated political ad campaigns targeting voters, often in divisive ways.
If Brussels can make these rules stick — including mandatory disclosures of how people are targeted online and outright bans on using sensitive data in these online political campaigns — other countries may try to piggyback on these efforts, as they too try to combat online sectarianism often fueled by digital political ads.
UPDATED: This article has been updated to clarify that the new rules are expected as early as Thursday.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.