Later this year, the European Commission is set to propose new rules to govern political advertising. This is an important step towards increasing the resilience of European democracies, and to respond to the changes wrought by digital campaigning. As the Commission’s public consultation on the matter has come to a close, Mozilla stresses the important role of a healthy internet and reiterates its calls for systemic online advertising transparency globally.
In recent years political campaigns have increasingly shifted to the digital realm – even more so during the pandemic. This allows campaigners to engage different constituencies in novel ways and enables them to campaign at all when canvassing in the streets is impossible due to public health reasons. However, it has also given rise to new risks. For instance, online political advertising can serve as an important and hidden vector for disinformation, defamation, voter suppression, and evading pushback from political opponents or fact checkers. The ways in which platforms’ design and practices facilitate this and the lack of transparency in this regard have therefore become subject to ever greater scrutiny. This reached a high point around the U.S. presidential elections last year, but it is important to continue to pay close attention to the issue as other countries go to the polls for major elections – in Europe and beyond.
At Mozilla, we have been working to hold platforms more accountable, particularly with regard to advertising transparency and disinformation (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Pushing for wide-ranging transparency is critical in this context: it enables communities to uncover and protect from harms that platforms alone cannot or fail to avert. We therefore welcome the Commission’s initiative to develop new rules to this end, which Member States can expand upon depending on the country-specific context. The EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, launched in 2019 and which Mozilla is a signatory of, was a first step in the right direction to improve the scrutiny of and transparency around online advertisements. In recent years, large online platforms have made significant improvements in this regard – but they still fall short in various ways. This is why we continue to advocate the mandatory disclosure of all online advertisements, as reflected in our recommendations for the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the European Democracy Action Plan.
As the Commission prepares its proposal, we recommend lawmakers in the EU and elsewhere to consider the following measures that we believe can enhance transparency and accountability with respect to online political advertising, and ultimately increase the resilience of democracies everywhere:
- Develop a clear definition of political advertising: Defining political advertising is a complicated exercise, forcing regulators to draw sharp lines over fuzzy boundaries. Nonetheless, in order to ensure heightened oversight, we need a functional definition of what does and does not constitute political advertising. In coming up with a definition, regulators should engage with experts from civil society, academia, and industry and draw inspiration from “offline” definitions of political advertising.
- Address novel forms of political advertising online: When defining political advertising, regulators should also include political content that users are paid (i.e. paid influencer content) by political actors to create and promote. Platforms should provide self-disclosure mechanisms for users to indicate these partnerships when they upload content (as Instagram and YouTube have done). This self-disclosed political advertising should be labeled as such to end-users and be included in the ad archives maintained by platforms.
- Ramp up disclosure obligations for ‘political’ advertising: As part of its proposal for the DSA, the Commission already foresees a mandate for large platforms to publicly disclose all advertisements through ad archive APIs in order to facilitate increased scrutiny and study of online advertising. These disclosure obligations closely resemble those previously advocated by Mozilla. Importantly, this would apply to all advertising so as to prevent under-disclosure should some relevant advertisements elude an eventual definition of political advertising. With this baseline, enhanced disclosure obligations should be required for advertisements that are considered political given their special role in and potentially harmful effects on the democratic process and public discourse. Amongst others, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, the European Partnership for Democracy, and ourselves have offered ideas on the specifics of such an augmented disclosure regime. For example, this should include more fine-grained information on targeting parameters and methods used by advertisers, audience engagement, ad spend, and other versions of the ad in question that were used for a/b testing.
- Enhance user-facing transparency: Information on political advertising should not only be available via ad archive APIs, but also directly to users as they encounter an advertisement. Such ads should be labeled in a way that clearly distinguishes them from organic content. Additional information, for example on the sponsor or on why a person was targeted, should be presented in an intelligible manner and either be included in the label or easily accessible from the specific content display. Further, platforms could be obliged to allow third parties to build tools providing users with new insights about, for instance, how and by whom they are being targeted.
Finally, we recommend the Commission to explore the following approaches should it seek to put limits on microtargeting of political advertisements in its upcoming proposal:
- Restrict targeting parameters: Parameters for micro-targeting of political advertising could exclude sensitive, behavioral, and inferred information as well as information from external datasets uploaded by advertisers, as others have argued. In line with Mozilla’s commitment to Lean Data Practices, this would discourage large-scale data collection by political advertisers and level the playing field for those who lack large amounts of data – so that political campaigns remain competitions of ideas, not of who collects the most data.
While online political advertising and our understanding of the accompanying challenges will continue to evolve, the recommended measures would help make great strides towards protecting the integrity of elections and civic discourse. We look forward to working with lawmakers and the policy community to advance this shared objective and ensure that the EU’s new rules will hit the mark.