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Political advertising: EU fights cookie banners, but not voter manipulation and microtargeting

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

Today, Members of the European Parliament adopted new rules on transparency and targeting of political advertising, which will essentially apply from 2025. In addition to a mandatory publicly accessible collection of political advertising (“ad library”), the EU Parliament, with the participation of Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer, was able to implement an unprecedented ban on annoying consent banners if the user rejects personalised political advertising via browser default settings (“do not track”). Parliament was also able to ensure that consent to political surveillance advertising must not be required as a precondition for using internet services (“tracking walls”). On the downside, contrary to Parliament’s intention, personally micro-targeting political messages based on every user’s the individual preferences, weaknesses, life situation and personality will continue (so-called surveillance advertising). Patrick Breyer, MEP and digital freedom fighter for the Pirate Party, who co-negotiated the regulation on behalf of the Committee on Home Affairs, sums up the result:

“This law is the beginning of the end of annoying cookie banners and outrageous forced consent walls. Every user will be able to decide in favour of or against political surveillance advertising – but the consequences of that decision are beyond the average consumer’s comprehension.
The digital manipulation of elections in the style of Cambridge Analytica, targeted disinformation before referendums such as Brexit, contradictory election promises to different voter groups – all of this remains legal. This non-regulation benefits anti-democratic and anti-European forces in particular: they can continue to use surveillance advertising to target hate messages and lies at those voters who are susceptible to them in order to undermine our democracy.

Here, the short-sighted self-interest of EU governments in election advertising and the surveillance capitalist profit interests of big tech have combined to create a mixture that is toxic to democracy. Transparency is not enough – it will only allow us to watch attacks on our democracy.”

The existing ban in the Digital Services Act on analysing users’ political opinions, sexual orientation or health for advertising purposes remains in place. In practice, however, micro-targeted political advertising tends to be based on matching interests and other correlations, which remains permissible. Cambridge Analytica also analysed users’ personalities rather than their political opinions prior to Trump’s election as US president.