Flags of the European Union in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium

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The European Commission has announced plans to regulate political advertising and clarified the responsibilities of online platforms, advertisers and political advisory firms.

The Action Plan for European Democracy presented today has three main pillars: promoting free and fair elections, strengthening media freedom and pluralism, and combating disinformation.

“With the digital revolution, citizens must be able to make decisions in which views can be freely expressed,” says the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

“Facts must be distinguished from fiction, and free media and civil society must be able to participate in an open debate that is free from malicious interference. Therefore, the EU is taking action to make our democracies in the EU more resilient.”

With regard to political advertising, the Commission is concerned about campaigning tools that combine personal data and AI with psychological profiles and complex micro-targeting techniques. While some of these tools, such as the processing of personal data, are regulated by EU law, others are only subject to the company’s Terms of Use.

There are plans to propose laws next year to increase the transparency of political advertisements and to consider further restricting micro-targeting and psychological profiles.

Online intermediaries and advertising service providers could be subject to specific obligations including labeling, records, disclosure requirements, transparency of the price paid, targeting and amplification criteria.

However, this will be a slow process and it will likely take years for a law change to go into effect.

“This will help improve the regulation of political ads and prevent a patchwork of different regulatory approaches from emerging across the EU,” says online ad monitoring group Who Targets Me.

“As always with these things, there is a long way to go and a lot to iron out, but the details of the plan and timeline (2021) give us a lot of hope and encouragement.”

There are also plans to improve the EU’s ability to combat foreign interference, including the ability to impose costs on perpetrators. The Commission will issue guidelines next spring on how to improve the code of conduct on disinformation and create a stronger framework for monitoring its implementation.

“We haven’t seen adequate steps from the platforms to address these issues on their own, and it’s time for regulatory solutions,” said Raegan MacDonald, Mozilla’s director of public policy.

“We therefore welcome the Commission’s signal of support for the need for full disclosure of sponsored policy content. We also welcome EDAP’s recognition of the risks associated with microtargeting policy content.”