In November 2021, Vice President and Commissioner for Values and Transparency Jourova presented the European Commission’s proposal for a regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising. This regulation should fill the regulatory gap which threatens electoral integrity through voter manipulation, intransparent campaigning and disinformation campaigns. The proposal by the European Commission is a stepping stone towards ensuring fair and transparent online campaigning. On this webpage, we will share information on the legislative process, and collect the most relevant research and positions on the legislative file.
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Key information about the legislation
Who is affected? Political parties, candidates and foundations, civil society campaigners using ads, online platforms, data brokers and publishers of political ads.
What does the proposal regulate? It puts forward transparency obligations and some targeting restrictions for online ads considered political. It also defines ‘political advertising’.
Where in the legislative process are we? The European Commission has published its proposal, now the European Parliament and the Council (Member States) are each developing their own position. On that basis, negotiations will start, possibly later in 2022. The legislative proposal puts forward April 2023 as the start of implementation.
Why is the EU proposing regulation on online political ads?
Under the chapter on “A new push for European democracy” of her Political Guidelines, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stressed the need to regulate digital platforms as a way to protect European democracies from external interference and destabilisation. This is further elaborated in the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP), where the Commission elaborated on why a Regulation on Political Advertising is needed and provided an initial indication of the transparency measures expected in such a regulation.
In the context of the elaboration of the EDAP, a public consultation was conducted. The results of the consultation showed that EU citizens want and ambitious regulation of political advertising online to enhance transparency and restrict unfair practices, as:
- 91% of the respondents indicated that they want disclosure rules at the EU level for political ads;
- 90% want the creation of open and transparent political advertisements archives and registries that show all the targeted political content, as well as data on who paid for it and how much;
- 90% want political parties that run adds to disclose their campaign finances broken down by media outlet; and
- 83% would like to see restrictions to micro-targeting, with roughly 70% of the respondents favouring strict limitations to micro-targeting.
What are the key issues at stake?
Transparency: For oversight and public scrutiny of campaigning, you need full transparency on the spending and advertising activities of political parties and actors (like influencers or fake NGOs) advertising on behalf of political parties. The principle of transparency itself is not controversial, but the exact measures needed to provide the necessary transparency remain debated. One of the key ideas is advertising libraries for public scrutiny in combination with meaningful ad transparency notices at individual ad level.
Targeting: The harms of hyper-targeted messages, the fragmentation of public discourse, and the disenfranchisement of the right to information of people not targeted by an ad are some of the key concerns with targeting. The proposal puts forward some modest limitations on the use of data for targeting, and imposes additional transparency requirements. In civil society and the Parliament, some are calling for a full ban on targeted political ads. Others want to restrict targeting to only age, language and location. Others insist on regulating the amplification of ads, in addition to transparency and restrictions on targeting.
Definition: What is a political ad? It makes sense to include ads from political parties, candidates and anyone receiving money or support from these political actors, but how far do you want to go in regulating non-traditional actors, like civil society? The Commission proposal casts a wide net, to capture as much campaigning as possible that is not commercial in nature. Civil society organisations warn against such an approach, as this will limit a lot of grassroots awarenessraising and fundraising activities. It is a fine balance to strike!
Enforcement and sanctions: With 27 Member States with each a different set-up of electoral authorities, data protection authorities and digital market regulators, enforcement will not be straightforward. The Commission counts on the GDPR and DSA enforcement structures and proposes guidelines for sanctions, but stays short of proposing minimum sanctions. Some of the ideas on the table are the introduction of minimum sanctions, a European-wide coordinating body, or even a European regulator. As electoral matters are politically sensitive, this discussion is expected to become heated.
Who are the key policy-makers on the file in the Parliament?
Committees responsible: IMCO (Internal Market and Consumer Protection)
- Sandro GOZI | RENEW (FR)
- Shadow rapporteurs:
- Pablo ARIAS ECHEVERRÍA | EPP (ES)
- Maria-Manuel LEITÃO-MARQUES | S&D (PT)
- Alexandra GEESE | Greens/EFA (DE)
- Stelios KOULOGLOU | GUE/NGL (EL)
State of the negotiations: Pending decision by Conference of Committee Chairs on the roles of the different committees.
- Key dates:
- 13/12/2021 Committee referral announced in Parliament, 1st reading
- 10/01/2022 Discussion with the Commission in IMCO
Who are the key policy-makers on the file in the Council?
- Council configuration: General Affairs Configuration (GAC)
- Working Party: General Affairs Working Party
- French Presidency until June 2022, then Czech Presidency
- State of the negotiations: Conversations started in January 2022
- Timeline: TBD
- Key dates : TBD
- Adoption desired before April 2023, when the regulation should enter into force
EU documentation on online political advertising
Regulation on Political Advertising
- Proposal for a Regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising
- European Parliament Legislative Observatory – Transparency and targeting of political advertising
- European Council – General Affairs Configuration Meetings
- Impact assessment report and feedback to the Commission proposal
- Study for the preparation of impact assessment on political advertising
European Parliament Resolutions on political advertising
- Resolution on the use of Facebook users’ data by Cambridge Analytica and the impact on data protection (October 2018)
- (Placeholder for INGE/KALNIETE Resolution until March 2022)
Regulation on the statute and funding of European Political Parties and European Political Foundations
- Proposal for a Regulation on the statute and funding of European political parties and European political foundations (recast)
- European Parliament Legislative Observatory – Statute and funding of European political parties and foundations
- European Council – General Affairs Configuration Meetings
European Democracy Action Plan
Further reading on online political advertising
- Ali, M., Sapiezynski, P., Korolova, A., Mislove, A. & Rieke, A. (2021). Ad Delivery Algorithms: The Hidden Arbiters of Political Messaging, here.
- Bayer, J. (2020). Double harm to voters: data-driven micro-targeting and democratic public discourse, here.
- Council of Europe (2020) Regulation of Political advertising – a comparative study with reflections on the situation in South-East Europe, here.
- Council of Europe (2017) Internet and electoral campaigns: Study on the use of internet in electoral campaigns, here.
- Dobber, T. & Ó Fathaigh, R. & Zuiderveen Borgesius, F. J. (2019). The regulation of online political micro-targeting in Europe. Internet Policy Review, 8(4), here.
- ERGA (2020) ERGA Report on disinformation: Assessment of the implementation of the Code of Practice, here.
- European Court of Human Rights (2018) Article 10 Expression and advertising of political positions through the media/Internet in the context of elections/referendums, here.
- European Parliament Research Service (2020) Foreign interference in democracies. Understanding the threat, and evolving responses, here.
- INGE Committee (2021) Investing in destabilisation: How foreign money is used to undermine democracy in the EU, here.
- International IDEA (2020) Online political advertising and microtargeting: The latest legal, ethical, political and technological evolutions, here.
- Dr Julian Jaursch (2021) How new, binding EU transparency standards for political advertising could be even higher (EurActiv), here.
- National Intelligence Council (2021) Foreign threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections, here.
- Panoptykon Foundation: Who (really) targets you? Facebook in Polish election campaigns, here.
- Privacy International (2021) Online political Ads: A study of inequality in transparency standards, here.
- Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (2020) Defining Online Political Advertising, here.
- Transparency International (2021) Paying for views: Solving transparency and accountability risks in online political advertising, here.
- Who Targets Me? (2020) What are we to do about microtargeting?, here.