It’s been nearly a year since the EU’s executive announced it would propose rules on political advertising transparency in response to concerns about online microtargeting and big data techniques that stifle democratic integrity and accountability.
Today it came out with its proposal. But honestly, the wait doesn’t seem worth it.
The Commission’s PR claims the proposal will “introduce strict conditions for targeting and amplifying” political advertisements using digital tools — including what it describes as banning targeting and amplification that “use or infer sensitive personal data.” such as ethnic origin, religious beliefs or sexual orientation”.
However, the alleged “prohibition” does not apply if “explicit consent” has been obtained from the individual whose sensitive data is to be misused to better target it with propaganda – and online “consent” for ad targeting is already a total mess of non- compliance in the region.
So it is not clear why the Commission believes that politically vested interests determined to influence elections will play under a privacy rulebook that almost no online advertisers active in the region currently do thiseven those just trying to get people to buy useless plastic trinkets or “detox” teas.
In a Q&A with more details on the proposal, the Commission lists a set of requirements that anyone using political targeting and amplification must meet, including having an internal policy for using such techniques; tracking targeting and use of personal data; and recording the source of said personal data — so at best it hopes to burden propagandists with the need to create and maintain a plausible paper trail.
Because it also allows a further exclusion to allow for political targeting — writing: “Targeting could also be allowed in the context of legitimate activities of foundations, associations or non-profit organizations with a political, philosophical, religious or trade union purpose, when it is aimed at their own members.”
This is incredibly vague. A “foundation” or an “association” with a political “purpose” sounds like something any campaign group or vested interest could set up – that is, to continue the “legitimate” activity of (behaviorally?) targeting propaganda against voters.
In short, the potential for loopholes for political microtargeting – including through the spread of disinformation – seems enormous.
In terms of scope, the Commission says it wants the inbound rules to apply to “ads by, for or on behalf of a political actor” and to “so-called” problem-based advertising – i.e. politically charged issues that can be a powerful proxy to sway voters – who it notes are “capable of influencing the outcome of any election or referendum, legislative or regulatory process, or voting behavior”.
But exactly how the regulation will define in- and out-of-scope ads remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most substantial measure of a very flimsy proposal is around transparency – where the Commission has proposed “transparency labels” for paid political advertisements.
It says these must be “clearly labelled” and contain “a range of essential information” – including the sponsor’s name “displayed prominently and an easily-requested transparency statement”; along with the amount spent on the political advertisement; the sources of the resources used; and a link between the advertisement and the relevant elections or referendums.
But again, the Commission seems hopeful that a few transparency requirements will turn a blind eye to a notoriously opaque and fraud-filled industry – one fueled by rampant misuse and illegal exploitation of people’s data. Instead of cutting off the head of the hydrate by actually limiting targeting, for example by limiting political targeting to broad contextual buckets.
That is why it writes: “All political advertising services, from adtech who mediate in the placement of advertisements, to consultancies and advertising agencies that produce the ad campaigns, will have to preserve the information they access by offering their service about the ad, the sponsor and the dissemination of the ad. They will have to transfer this information to the publisher of the political ad – this could be the website or app where the ad is seen by a person, a newspaper, a TV broadcaster, a radio station, etc. The publisher should ensure the information available to the person seeing the ad.”
“Political advertising transparency will help people understand when they see a paid political ad,” the Commission continued, adding: “With the proposed rules, any political ad – whether on Twitter, Facebook or any other online platform must be clearly marked as a political ad, as well as the sponsor’s identity and a transparency statement setting out the broader context of the political ad and its objectives, or a clear indication of where it can be easily found.”
It’s a nice theory, but for starters, a lot of election interference comes from outside a region where the election itself takes place.
The Commission then says that it will demand: organizations that provide political advertising services in the EU but are not physically present there to appoint a legal representative in a Member State where the services are provided, proposing: “This will ensure greater transparency and accountability for service providers acting from outside the Union.”
Exactly how it will require (and enforce) that provision is not clear.
Another problem is that all these transparency obligations only apply to “political advertising services”.
Propaganda that is uploaded to online platforms such as Facebook by just a “user” – also known as an entity that does not self-identify as a political advertising agency — will apparently escape the need for any transparency accountability.
Even if they – you know – work out of a Russian troll farm actively trying to destabilize the European Union… As long as they claim ‘Hans, 32, Berliner, loves cats, hates the CSU’.
If platforms like Facebook were now perfect at identifying, reporting and purging inauthentic activity, fake accounts and dark influence operations in their own backyard, it would power shouldn’t be such a problem leaving the door open for “a user” to post inexplicable political propaganda. But a slew of whistleblowers have pointed out in excruciating detail that Facebook certainly isn’t.
So that looks like another huge loophole — one that underscores why the only real way to solve the problem of online disinformation and election meddling is to end the era of behavioral targeting, instead. from just fidgeting at the edges. Not least because by tinkering with some lukewarm measures that provide only a lack of partial transparency, you risk luring people into a false sense of security – and further normalizing exploitative manipulation (as long as you have a ‘policy’ in place). ).
Once online ads and content can be targeted to individuals based on tracking their digital activities and collecting their personal information for profiling, it’s time for opaque InfluenceOps and malicious interests to get around the political ad transparency rules you put on top of the cheap, highly scalable tools offered by advertising giants like Facebook to keep spreading their propaganda – at the expense of your free and fair elections.
Basically what this ordinance proposes is to create a major administrative burden on advertisers who intend to conduct truly public/supra-government political campaigns – exposing the underbelly of paid mud-slingers, hate-spreaders and disinformation peddlers to the abundant loopholes in the law. must exploit to run mass manipulation campaigns well through it.
So it will be interesting to see if the European Parliament takes steps to retrain the Commission by adding some choice amendments to its draft – as MEPs have taken a stronger stance against microtargeting in recent months.
At the moment, under the Commission’s proposal, ‘official’ advertising services can be fined for breaching things like transparency and record-keeping, but how much will be determined locally by Member States – at a level the Commission believes should be “effective.” , proportionate and deterrent”.
What could that mean? Well, under the proposal, National Data Protection Authorities (DPAs) will be responsible for overseeing the use of personal data in political targeting and for imposing fines – thus ultimately determining the level of fines that domestic rule-breaking political actors may face. to get.
Which doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence. After all, DPAs are funded by the same set of political entities — or whatever flavor in government.
The UK’s ICO conducted a comprehensive audit of political parties’ data-processing activities following the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data abuse scandal in 2018 – and in 2020 it reported finding a laundry list of failures across the political spectrum.
So what was the EU’s (at the time) best equipped DPA doing about all these blatant violations by British political parties?
The ICO’s enforcement action at the time consisted of: checks notes — issuing a series of recommendations.
There was also a warning that it power take further action in the future. And this summer, the ICO handed out one fine: fine the Conservative party £10,000 for spamming voters. Which doesn’t sound too scary tbh.
Earlier this month, another of these British political data offenders, the Labor Party, was forced to confess to what it called a “data incident” – involving an unnamed third-party data processor. It remains to be seen what sanction it may face for failing to protect supporters’ information in that (post-ICO audit) case.
Adtech has also generally had little to do with enforcement by EU data protection authorities – despite numerous complaints against its privacy takedown methods – and despite the ICO saying in 2019 that its methods are rampantly illegal under existing law on privacy. data protection.
Vested interests in Europe have been incredibly successful in hindering regulatory enforcement against invasive ad targeting.
And apparently also derailing progress by negating incoming EU rules – so they won’t do much to stop the big-data ‘sausage factory’ of (in this case) political microtargeting from continuing to sever the apples of the bourgeoisie’s eye.