Transparency in Political Advertising: Translating Ambitions Into Workable and Effective EU Rules
At the end of 2021, the European Commission proposed new rules on transparency and targeting of political advertising to protect democratic elections. Political ads help connect politicians with their constituents and potential voters. Lawmakers want EU citizens to clearly see when they receive a political advert, who sponsored it and why. This is an opportunity to address concerns around disinformation while safeguarding legitimate political expression. The proposal on the table is a good starting point, but to avoid legal uncertainty and ensure its effectiveness in practice a few improvements and clarifications are needed.
The European Commission seeks to strike an important balance. It acknowledges that targeted ads can be beneficial while also addressing concerns about the potential use of personal data to inappropriately promote political messages. Getting this balance right will help promote a healthier online environment for political discourse.
An EU-wide framework is welcome. Currently Member States set their own rules on political ads transparency and targeting, making the regulatory landscape fragmented and difficult to enforce in the online environment which is inherently cross-border. This is particularly challenging for small companies to follow.
Addressing disinformation and protecting election integrity requires active participation of all the players of the ecosystem, including candidates, campaigners, advertisers, publishers, and platforms. An initiative that wouldn’t reflect this multitude of actors would not be effective. Policymakers should not only recognize the variety of actors involved, but also assign their responsibilities accordingly, making sure that everyone is doing their part. For instance, political advertisers and sponsors should provide truthful and complete information about their campaigns to ensure full transparency.
For an issue as sensitive as political advertising, regulation will need to set clear and unambiguous rules about who it applies to, and the circumstances in which it will apply. The proposal on the table offers a broad definition of “political ads” and “political actor” leaving much room for interpretation and thus likely differences in subsequent national implementations. For example, influencers are considered as political actors; but where would we draw the line as to who could fall into the scope of an influencer? Similar questions can be asked about many social issue ads from different actors that could potentially be considered under the scope of the law (e.g., ads promoting anti-climate change actions by NGOs, advertising by commercial entities on diversity and inclusion, or ads raising awareness about poverty from private citizens’). As negotiations progress, it will be important to clarify such details, so that obligations remain feasible and proportionate. This will in turn allow for effective enforcement of the law.
The political advertising proposal complements and strengthens the ongoing legislative and industry-led initiatives that support transparency in sponsored political content. For instance, ads libraries, labeling of ads, identity checks, specific disclaimers, and ranking systems (such as those in the Digital Services Act and Code of Practice on Disinformation). It will be important to maintain a full alignment with these existing efforts.
To guarantee transparency in political advertising and to safeguard election integrity, lawmakers should set clear EU-wide rules, properly recognise the shared responsibility of all the actors involved in political messaging, and continue their dialogue with the stakeholders. This way the final regulation has the best chances to achieve lawmakers’ ambitions.