Political advertising for European Parliament elections is about to change

The stricter rules on political advertising adopted by MEPs to make EU elections more transparent will require MEP candidates, including in Malta, to disclose more detailed information about the nature and use of their online advertisements.

MEPs have approved the Internal Market Committee’s (IMCO) text on the Regulation on Political Advertising (RPA), paving the way for the next stage of the legislative process. The measure was approved with 433 votes in favour, 61 against and 110 abstentions.

The regulation was originally announced in December 2020 as part of the European Commission’s Democracy Action Plan, which aims to increase the transparency of political advertising and tackle the issue of foreign interference in election campaigns.

The Commission’s original proposal included transparency labels for political advertising and some restrictions on micro-targeting. But most MEPs wanted stricter regulation in an area where the technology has gained a reputation as a cheap, powerful, and largely consequence-free tool for meddling with democratic processes.

One of the changes proposed by MEPs, and the one that caused the most controversy, was that which would effectively ban micro-targeting. This strategy uses consumer data and demographics to identify the interests of specific individuals. This technique came under the spotlight following the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum.

Under the new regulation, advertisers will only be able to use the information provided by individuals who consent to have their data used specifically for political advertising purposes.

In the last three months ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Maltese political parties and candidates spent more than €80,000 on Facebook and Instagram adverts.

This information is based on the transparency information provided by Facebook on adverts by paying entities, which showed that between them, Malta’s two main parties spent €74,270. However, it is unclear whether these adverts targeted specific individuals based on their interactions on the social media platform.

In addition, in late 2021, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, announced that it would begin restricting how political adverts could be targeted to its users, removing the ability, in most cases, to serve ads to individuals based on what political, religious, or health-related content they had accessed on the platform.

MEPs also made significant changes to ensure that citizens, public authorities, and journalists have easy access to information on political advertising.

Among other things, the proposed regulation advocates the creation of an online repository for all online political advertising and related data, including who is financing an advert, its cost, and the origin of the money used.

MEPs also want to make it easier to obtain information on who is financing an advert, its cost, and the origin of the money used and give journalists a specific right to receive such information.

Other pieces of information which should also be published include whether an advertisement has been suspended for violating the rules, the specific groups of individuals targeted and what personal data were used for this, and the views and engagement with the advertisement.

This would make a significant difference in how the public can access information about a candidate’s campaign spending on online political advertising in Malta.

As things stand, if a member of the public or a journalist wanted to learn how much an EP candidate spent on his election campaign in 2019, consulting the electoral commission’s report would not be enough. The report directs the individual to the Malta Government Gazette, which lists the dates on which candidates submitted their expenditure declarations.

To access these declarations, the person would then need to head to the Office of the Electoral Commission and request to view the candidate’s return and expenditure declaration upon payment of a fee.

On Wednesday, rapporteur Sandro Gozi from Renew Europe Group said: “There is too much undue interference in our democratic processes. As legislators, we have a responsibility to fight this but also to ensure debate remains open and free. This law will not kill political advertising, despite rumours spread by large online platforms. Nor will it stymie our freedom of expression. It will only limit abusive political advertising.”

The proposed regulation is restricted to transparency and targeting. It does not cover other crucial aspects of political advertising regulation, such as rules on the substance of political ads or spending limits. It still leaves the Member States the task of determining what additional conditions are needed to ensure fair political practices.

The proposal will now progress to negotiations with the European Commission and European Council.


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