New EU political ads law is a step in the right direction

Having access to the right information matters. During a democratic election, it matters more than ever. High-quality information helps people make informed decisions when voting and counteracts abuse by bad actors. Through programs like security training for campaigns, information about polling places and transparency for political ads, Google is committed to helping support the integrity of democratic processes around the world.

Political advertising is an important component of democratic elections — candidates use ads to raise awareness, share information and engage potential voters. Over the last few years, Google has proactively increased transparency around election advertising: we updated our ads policies to require election advertisers to verify their identities and show who’s paying for an ad. We also introduced transparency reporting for online election ads in Europe as well as in the US and other countries around the world, providing a range of data that goes well beyond what’s typically available for TV, radio or print ads.

We have also made real changes to how election advertising works. In 2020, we implemented industry-leading restrictions to limit election ads’ audience targeting to age, gender and general location (at the postal code level), similar to categories candidates would use in deciding where to run ads on TV shows or in print. That same year, we started rolling out identity verification and disclosures for all advertisers, providing even wider transparency about ad sponsors. These improvements, and more, are part of a larger focus on political advertising that helped us navigate elections in the European Union, the United States, India (the largest democratic election in history) and other leading countries.

Google was one of the original signatories of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, which has led to constructive actions and change between the industry, policymakers and the expert community on the challenges of addressing disinformation. The Code laid out a model for voluntary action, facilitating work with policymakers on new transparency reporting on political advertising and helping users, governments and academics better understand how online election ads work.

We share the Commission’s goal of increasing the harmonization of Europe’s transparency rules for political advertising and we support today’s introduction of legislation. As we expand our own efforts, we look forward to engaging with the Commission on how best to meet the goals laid out by the Democracy Action Plan and Digital Services Act. This is a complex field, requiring a balance between minimizing misinformation while protecting legitimate political expression. The Commission’s proposal is an important and welcome step and as the European Council and Parliament review it, we offer a few observations based on our experiences over recent election cycles.

  • Clear definitions for ‘political’ ads: It’s critical that the law clarifies which actors and what types of content are subject to the obligations regarding political advertising, giving clear examples of what would or would not be in scope. Without clear definitions, different companies will adopt inconsistent and conflicting policies, making for confusion for advertisers and undermining transparency for citizens. The current text could also inadvertently impact a wider range of ads than intended — for example, sweeping in ads from NGOs on issues of public concern or from private citizens speaking out about social questions.
  • Clear responsibilities for platforms and advertisers: Protecting elections is a shared responsibility and we all need to play our part to be more transparent. Advertisers are in the best position to validate their identity and best understand the nature and context of their ads. They play a critical role in providing accurate information and (as they do with other media like television) ensuring that their content complies with applicable laws. Advertiser “self-declaration” — whereby political advertisers verify their identities and declare when they are running political ads — would have advertisers due their share to contribute to transparency, making the law work better in practice.
  • Flexibility and dialogue: This is a dynamic and fast moving environment and we have seen a lot of changes to both political ads and governing regulations. Continuing discussions with stakeholders will help regulation react to changing contexts or emerging trends that might affect definitions, regulatory provisions or enforcement.

Elections are a fundamental part of democracy, and new regulations can help keep elections open, transparent and accountable. Legal certainty in those regulations will help candidates, campaigns, advertisers, publishers and platforms understand the precise scope of covered advertising and the specific obligations of each actor. In the coming months we look forward to sharing our experiences with the different institutions and bodies working to advance these important topics.

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