Responses to the European Commission’s public consultation on a proposal for an initiative on greater transparency in sponsored political content, and other supporting measures
The following statement summarizes some of the key points from the response to the European Commission’s consultation on initiatives on transparency for political online advertising. The entire submission to the consultation, including this statement, can be downloaded as a PDF under the link in the download section. The statement was not part of the official submission to the Commission.
It is timely and necessary for the European Commission to establish transparency measures for online political advertising. Digital political campaigning that is fair and open, and supports, not weakens, citizens’ fundamental rights to freely form their political opinions is a necessity both for citizens themselves as well as for society as a whole.
While member states oversee their own national laws on political parties, electoral systems and campaign finance regulations, the EU nevertheless has an important role to play. It can and should suggest courses of action to member states based on working practices and legal guidelines from across the EU. It can also find and enforce rules dealing with political advertising at the European level, e.g., for European political parties and European Parliament elections. More crucially, the Commission can and should enact rules for advertising platforms such as social media sites, video-sharing apps and search engines, which work across the EU. That is why considerations on political advertising should be embedded in and considered along with other legislative proposals, chiefly among them the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Market Act. The use of online platforms to pay to spread political messages is directly connected to the gatekeeping power of platforms, the algorithmic information and news spaces tech companies offer and the tracking and profiling of users’ online behavior.
With a specific view to online political advertising, this short summary of the following responses to the Commission’s consultation discusses the need to establish meaningful transparency. It lays out transparency measures that are necessary for all ads (not just political ads), while acknowledging there might still be a need for definition of political ads. An outline of such a definition is provided, focusing on an actor-based approach.
The rationale for transparency for political advertising
Paying to reach citizens and potential voters with messages to persuade them of candidates, parties, political ideas, to solicit donations and volunteer work and to disparage political opponents affects both individuals and society as a whole. For example, such messages can reinforce or alter individuals’ opinions regarding which party platform to support. This, in turn, can affect larger parts of society by shaping political power balances and agendas. Political advertising can also heighten already existing polarization and voter segmentation, as political views are being entrenched, even radicalized, or conspiracy myths about candidates, political issues and the electoral process spread.
Because of these individual and societal consequences of paid political communication, a basic necessity for political advertising is transparency. Transparency is necessary, but not sufficient to support free and fair political opinion formation and should therefore be accompanied by educational measures for all ages on media and news literacy as well as civics, by support measures for journalism and academia and by regulation for digital platforms regarding their use of automated recommender systems.
Details on what challenges arise with political online advertising and how to tackle them can be found in the SNV policy paper “Rules for Fair Digital Campaigning: What Risks Are Associated with Online Political Advertising and What Reforms Are Necessary in Germany”, available here.
Meaningful transparency for all advertising
Transparency requirements should serve to help citizens understand who is paying to reach them and should provide clarity on what political advertisers are paying to reach what segments of the population with what messages (and what segments are being left out). This could be achieved with clear, easy-to-find and easy-to-understand ad disclosures. In addition, citizens, but especially researchers from journalism, academia and civil society, should be able to easily and freely use cross-platform ad databases that save online ads (including removed ads) and provide detailed information on their ad targeting and ad delivery criteria.
Such heightened transparency measures compared to offline ads are necessary and justified, because contrary to offline or broadcasting ads, online behavioral advertising relies on massive amounts of various personal data that can be used to target and deliver ads only to specific, rather small, homogeneous groups. Because of the specific characteristics of online advertising, minimum requirements for meaningful transparency should be in place for all online advertising, not just political advertising.
Defining political advertisers
There could be further measures to ensure accountability and public interest scrutiny specifically for political advertising, which necessitates a clarification as to what political advertising is. This is a tricky issue, because defining paid political messages depends on the timing, EU member state and context they appear in. One way to address this issue to define a set of actors as political: Certain core political advertisers should be defined whose paid communication is always considered political, for instance, political parties, candidates, parliamentary groups and lobby associations. They could face heightened scrutiny for their paid communication, such as financial reporting requirements or spending caps. Actors that are financially or otherwise connected to these core advertisers could be deemed political advertisers on the periphery and in such cases be subject to such additional scrutiny as well. This might apply to social media influencers and non-party campaigns, thus acknowledging that what is sometimes called “sponsored content” can also be political.
Defining core and peripheral advertisers and subjecting their ads to heightened scrutiny would cover a wide range of political advertising online. Ads by non-core and non-peripheral advertisers, for example, by companies or non-party groups on social or political issues (“issue ads), might fall out of the scope of this approach, even though they are an important facet of online political advertising. This could be addressed by mandating meaningful labeling and self-reporting options at platforms for issue ads, so that advertisers can flag their paid messages as political. While leaving some uncertainty, this is preferrable to companies or governments deciding on their own what content is “political” and thereby subject to political ad rules.
Details regarding the challenges of defining political ads can be found in the SNV policy paper “Defining Online Political Advertising: How Difficulties in Delineating Paid Political Communication Can Be Addressed”, available here.