EU pushes to limit how tech companies target political ads


A bill proposed Thursday by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, would restrict online tech platforms from targeting political ads at individual users based on a list of categories that regulators deem sensitive, including their race, political beliefs and health status, without users’ explicit consent. But it stops short of a broader ban on so-called microtargeting based on personal information that some activists had demanded.

The bill would also impose broad new requirements on social-media companies to disclose more information about every political ad they run, including how widely viewed an ad is and what criteria are used to determine who sees it, including targeting via the use of third-party data.

Companies that fail to comply could face fines of as much as 5% of their annual global revenue—higher than EU fines for privacy violations.

The goal of the new rules, EU policy makers say, is to counteract what they describe as the negative effect on free elections and political debate that stem from highly targeted ads. Such ads can polarize political debates, they say. Researchers say they have been used to target specific groups of voters to discourage them from turning out to cast their ballot.

“The sensitive data that people decide to share with friends on social media cannot be used to target them for political purposes,” said Vera Jourova, a vice president of the European Commission. “Our aim is to put order in the world of political advertising, especially online.”

The EU’s proposal will now begin what could be months or years of haggling over its content. To become law, it must be approved by both the European Council, representing the bloc’s 27 national governments, and the directly elected European Parliament.

The announcement comes amid the biggest new wave of tech regulation in a generation.

EU member states and Parliament members are currently advancing separate bills that would impose strict new content-moderation and pre-emptive competition rules on big tech companies, with the aim to complete and pass them as soon as early next year. Similar rules are under consideration in the U.K., and other proposals aimed at reining in big technology companies are under consideration in the U.S., Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Ms. Jourova on Thursday cited a cache of internal Facebook documents published by The Wall Street Journal as an example of the risks that the bill aims to address. Those documents have accelerated other calls for legislation as well.

In the U.S., legislation seeking to reduce big tech companies’ power has started to gain traction in Congress.

Online political advertising has itself been the subject of debate. It has become a potent tool for political campaigns in the U.S., EU and elsewhere to reach hard-to-find voters. But it has also come in for criticism since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when foreign groups including some backed by the Russian government used social media ads to attempt to sway voters and fracture the political debate.

In the run up to the 2020 election, tech companies took widely varying approaches to the question. Alphabet Inc.’s Google barred advertisers from targeting political messages based on users’ interests inferred from their browsing or search histories. Twitter Inc. stopped accepting most political ads altogether.

Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook suspended political ads on its platform in the U.S. for a period running up to and following the election, and earlier this month said that it will stop allowing political ads to be targeted based on sensitive categories, like race and political views.

At least some lobbyists for the tech industry said they back the general idea behind the EU’s proposed political-ad rules, given the risk of multiple European countries passing conflicting national rules. “Having more guidance at the EU level and a consistent policy for political ads would be better, particularly for smaller companies, than dealing with a patchwork of different state rules for political ads,” said Christian Borggreen, vice president and head of the Brussels office of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents companies including Meta’s Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Facebook and Google didn’t immediately have any comment.

Twitter said that it bans political advertising because “we believe political reach should be earned, not bought.” The company said it has also restricted and removed microtargeting from cause-based advertising.

Some tech activists expressed support for the bill, but said they hoped it would be expanded to outlaw more forms of microtargeting of ads for political purposes. “We will need to be diligent on how the European Parliament and the Council address the problematic issue of microtargeting in the forthcoming legislative process,” said Raphaël Kergueno, a policy officer at Transparency International, an anticorruption group.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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