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Five Ways to Embed Open Gov Values in Online Political Advertising Regulation

Cinco formas de incorporar los valores del gobierno abierto en la regulación de la publicidad política digital

In today’s digital age, elections are won, lost and called into question over social media. With little to no system of checks and balances in place for political parties, candidates, online actors and platforms, tech companies can spell out their own rules for political advertising, including the use of  microtargeting in paid online campaigns for voter support — all without oversight. To address these concerns collectively, the EU has put the regulation of online platforms and political advertising at the heart of its “new push for European democracy” through proposals for a European Democracy Action Plan and Digital Services Act.

The European Partnership for Democracy, Open Government Partnership (OGP), and Open Governance Network for Europe (a joint initiative of The Democratic Society and OGP) convened policymakers and officials from EU institutions and member states, Canada and the United Kingdom, together with civil society experts and representatives of online platforms in a roundtable discussion to try and solve some of the puzzles around regulating the market and use of online political advertising in Europe. 

Here are five ways to ensure open government values are at the heart of online political advertising regulation:

  1. Situate online political advertising reform within the context of broader democratic and electoral reform. The lack of transparency and accountability in who pays for these ads and the information they contain creates information asymmetry, fragments public space, exacerbates polarization, and weakens electoral processes and democratic dialogue. Hence this set of reforms becomes relevant not just around platform regulation but for any country looking to strengthen electoral reform and policy around political integrity. For example, the Netherlands committed in its recent OGP action plan to look at the transparency of online political campaigns as part of its commitment on transparency in political parties, and Ireland is addressing this as part of a wider scope of electoral reforms
  2. Ensure transparency is a part of the legislative framework for both political actors’ spending and online platforms’ ad services. In this context, transparency could mean mandatory public libraries of ads, subject to protection of vulnerable groups, that allow for international cross-platform analysis of information such as targeting criteria and amount spent by political advertisers. For example, France launched an open archives initiative to monitor political ads and complement its law against information manipulation, which mandates online platforms to provide clear and transparent information on ads linked to content of “general interest” during electoral periods. 
  3. Subject ad targeting and delivery to greater oversight, accountability and potential limitations. An enormous threat to democracy is the fragmentation of the public square into numerous micro-campaigns, in part through the microtargeting of online campaigns. Democracies rely on the exchange of ideas and information that fosters debate and consensus, but online platforms currently profit (more) from content that polarises, like disinformation. Further, current ad targeting technologies enable advertisers to pin-point audiences and divide users. Regulation should thus limit the harms of microtargeting at the level of platforms. Proposed solutions include: limitations to targeting, the auditing of ad delivery algorithms, functions for users to opt-in to ad targeting, and the promotion of reliable information and sources. Likewise, limitations on the number of political ads per political party, for example, could bring the number of ads back down to human scale for oversight. A more robust enforcement of the EU’s privacy laws (GDPR) could also help reduce the negative impacts of content that are driven by personal data gleaned through pervasive surveillance regimes.
  4. Capture malign actors without stifling speech. Political advertisers include both traditional political actors such as political parties and candidates and the many informal actors like non-profit campaigners or foreign influencers. Ireland’s Electoral Reform Bill aims to introduce stricter transparency and accountability requirements for all actors advertising with a “political purpose” during electoral and referendum campaign periods. However, this definition includes civil society organisations and other not-for-profit groups, which might stifle their cause campaigns and advocacy. Reformers should also look beyond electoral campaigns, to include focus on sponsored political content in between elections, as this also influences  democratic discourse. These could include conversations around political campaign issues such as migration or environmental protection. 
  5. Be flexible and use a multilateral approach with platform and campaigning regulations. A multilateral approach can best respond to cross-border pressures for unified standards. Although the EU cannot regulate national elections within the bloc, it is best placed to provide a harmonised approach to regulating online platforms. Beyond political ads, online platforms are calling for harmonisation of electoral rules across the EU to simplify guidelines for silent periods and foreign advertising. The EU will need to strike a delicate balance that accommodates national differences and flexibility in implementation, while ensuring regulation effectively captures the cross-border nature of the phenomenon.

The EU is expected to announce a legislative proposal on online political advertising in the third quarter of 2021. Further multi-stakeholder dialogue and risk assessment will be crucial. As the EU proceeds with legislation, close and continuous consultation with EU member states, civil society, and the private sector will be essential to arrive at a joint solution that improves oversight of online platforms and advertising while protecting the cornerstones of Europe’s democracy and public debate. Reformers can use their OGP action plans to advance this dialogue and support the implementation of the legislation in EU member states.

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