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Why the EU’s new political advertising rules won’t protect the next European elections 

Last month, the European Parliament adopted a Regulation on increased transparency in political advertising; part of a package of wider measures intended to protect free and fair elections to the European Parliament. But with the next European elections just four months away, it remains to be seen whether this new rulebook can deliver when it comes to preventing voter manipulation and safeguarding electoral integrity

The 2018 Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal should have been a cautionary tale for policymakers on how easily electoral integrity can be undermined, and voters’ political opinions manipulated and exploited. Yet the road to adopting this new law was still a rocky one, marked by delays and opaque negotiations between EU Member States. As we examine in this post, the recently-adopted law still won’t ensure that, between 6 to 9 June 2024, voters across the EU can cast their ballots for the next Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in a fair and just way. 

First, some promising safeguards for future EU elections 

Since the Regulation was first proposed in 2022, Access Now has engaged extensively with the lawmaking process – and we were pleased to see some of our recommendations make it into the final text. Here are some of the law’s most positive components: 

  • The definition of political advertising was limited to paid and sponsored political content (Article 3). This aligns with the Regulation’s intent to regulate the use and deployment of political ads and related targeting techniques, but not all political content shared online. While some tried to broaden this scope during negotiations, in a way that would have disproportionately impacted non-commercial political speech, the final text prevents personal political views, non-sponsored journalistic content, or civil society’s advocacy work from falling into its purview.    
  • A ban on targeting and ad-delivery techniques that involve profiling based on special categories of personal data (Article 18). In a testament to civil society’s advocacy efforts, this measure complements the Digital Services Act (DSA), which already prohibits targeting ads at people based on their sensitive data. Together, both safeguards will hopefully help tackle opaque and harmful targeted political ads ahead of the next European elections.  
  • The final text increases the transparency of political advertising. Political advertising will have to be clearly labelled, making it easier for individuals and public authorities to find out who paid for ads, how much they cost and where the money came from, and where the advertiser is established. In addition, the European Commission will establish a repository for online political advertisement in 24 months after the Regulation’s entry into force. This centralised repository will contain all online political advertisements published in the EU, including ads targeted at any person within the EU jurisdiction. 

Now for the bad news

Unfortunately, while the new legislation is a positive step forward, it comes too late to safeguard this year’s European elections, with some measures not yet in force, and others remaining half-baked, due to delays, road-blocks, and political gridlock.

  • The new rules only enter into force in 2025, meaning they will do very little to strengthen the integrity of this June’s elections. Even once that day arrives, voters will still need to wait another two years for transparency repositories to be established, limiting the chance of holding any rogue actors active during this electoral cycle accountable. 
  • Identifying political advertising online depends on self-declarations by political ad sponsors. The Regulation contains no checks and balances to ensure that online platforms and other political ad publishers declare if ads are political. This would be a disaster for electoral integrity, since unidentified, undeclared ads will be left out of political ad repositories, thus undermining the Regulation’s meaningful transparency safeguards.      

The year 2024 is being called an unprecedented “year of elections,” with 49% of the world’s population set to vote in over 60 countries. Across the EU’s 27 Member States, more than 400 million people are eligible to vote for a total of 720 MEPs in June’s elections. So is the EU ready for this ultimate test? 

Looking solely at the Regulation on online political advertising, the answer is no. While the new law’s transparency measures will hopefully prevent voter manipulation and protect people’s personal data from abuse in years to come, it won’t have much impact on the 2024 European elections – making it a missed opportunity, albeit one with potential for the future.    

The EU does have other tools at its disposal to help protect electoral integrity and prevent the unchecked spread of disinformation online. The DSA’s risk mitigation tools adopted by Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) are promising, but here again, implementation has been slow. Despite the obvious urgency, the European Commission is still gathering data, setting up enforcement processes, and only just launched guidelines for VLOPs on protecting electoral integrity this month. Time is running out. Given that the European elections are held every five years, no one can claim that they were caught by surprise.