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EU lawmakers vow to ban surveillance-based political advertising

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

Today the Members of the European Parliament by a large margin adopted a negotiating mandate for legislation which would drastically restrict the use of personal data to target online political advertisements. Targeting would only be allowed based on personal data which has been explicitly provided for this purpose by citizens, excluding the use of intrusive practices of inferring individuals’ characteristics and weaknesses from their online activities (“surveillance advertising”).

Pirate Party Member of the European Parliament Patrick Breyer, co-negotiator in the LIBE Committee, comments:

“Today is a good day for democracy: With a broad majority, the European Parliament has rallied behind the goal of stopping political surveillance advertising online. This would protect our democracy from manipulation while not restricting unpaid political posts. From the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns we have learned that you can very effectively and subconsciously manipulate a voter if you know which message works on them. The mandate to ban political surveillance advertising is a victory for us Pirates.

On the other hand, an unholy alliance of EU Commission, EU governments and big tech companies wants to allow the digital manipulation of elections and referendums to continue unabated. Anti-democratic and anti-European forces could continue to use surveillance advertising to target hate messages and lies at those voters who are receptive to them, and thus attack our democracy. We are witnessing a toxic mixture of the short-sighted self-interest of the powerful in using surveillance advertising themselves and the business interests of big tech. We will fight to ensure that they do not succeed. We will fight to protect our private lives and our democracy.”

Specifically, these are some of the ‘wins’ Breyer has successfully pushed for in the negotiations:

  • According to the mandate, no political advertisement could be targeted based on sensitive personal data (e.g. revealing political views or sexual orientation), whether online or offline.
  • For online ads, targeting could only be based on data explicitly provided for this purpose by citizens with their consent, excluding the use of behavioural and inferred intelligence on citizens (“surveillance advertising”). Refusing consent would need to be just as simple as giving it. The “do not track” browser setting would need to be respected without bothersome prompts. Users who refuse to consent would still have access to online platforms.
  • The platforms would be banned from running opaque ad delivery algorithms to determine who should see a political ad; they would only be able to select recipients randomly in the pool of people delineated by the targeting parameters chosen by the sponsor.
  • In the 60 days prior to an election or referendum, different political messages could be targeted only of the basis of a voter’s language and the constituency they live in, thereby avoiding a fragmentation of the public debate and the sending of micro-targeted, contradictory and dishonest messages.
  • If a data protection authority such as the Irish DPA fails to enforce the rules against large online platforms, the European Data Protection Board would be able to take over. In cases of illegal political ads targeting it will not only be able to impose financial sanctions but also to temporarily suspend the targeting of ads by advertisers who seriously and systematically violated the rules. This ensures that more affluent sponsors are not able to simply factor-in the price of financial sanctions in their budget.
  • Organic, self-posted content is excluded from the proposed targeting rules. Namely they do not cover the amplification of organic content.

Now that the European Parliament has adopted its position on the legislation, negotiations with the Council will begin.