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EU urges tech companies to limit exposure to political ads


The European Union proposes banning media outlets from targeting political ads to people based on their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, a new volley in the expansion of global tech regulation on the continent.

A bill proposed on Thursday by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, would prevent online tech platforms from targeting political ads to individual users based on a list of categories regulators deem sensitive, including their race, political Beliefs and their state of health without the users express consent. But it halts at a broader ban on so-called microtargeting based on personal data, which some activists had called for.

The bill would also place extensive new requirements on social media companies to disclose more information about each political ad they run, including how an ad is circulated and what criteria are used to determine who sees it, including targeting through the use of Third party providers. Party data.

Companies that fail to comply could face fines of up to 5% of their annual global turnover – higher than the EU fines for data breaches.

The aim of the new rules, according to EU politicians, is to counter the negative effects of targeted advertising on free elections and political debates. Such advertisements can polarize political debates, it is said. Researchers say they were used to target certain groups of voters to deter them from casting their vote.

“The sensitive data that people share with friends on social media cannot be used for political purposes,” said Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission. “Our goal is to bring order to the world of political advertising, especially online.”

The EU proposal now begins with bargaining for months or years over its content. To become law, it has to be approved by both the European Council, which represents the bloc’s 27 national governments, and the directly elected European Parliament.

The announcement comes amid the biggest new wave of technical regulation in a generation.

EU member states and MPs are currently bringing in separate bills that would impose strict new rules on content moderation and preventive competition rules on major tech companies, with the aim of finalizing and adopting them early next year. Similar rules are being considered in the UK, and other proposals aimed at containing large tech companies are under consideration in the US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Ms. Jourova on Thursday cited a cache of internal Facebook documents released by the Wall Street Journal as an example of the risks the bill is intended to address. These documents have also accelerated other demands for legislation.

In the US, legislation aimed at reducing the power of big tech companies has gained prominence in Congress.

Online political advertising is itself the subject of discussion. It has become a powerful tool for political campaigning in the US, EU and elsewhere to reach hard-to-find voters. But it has also come under fire since the 2016 US presidential election when foreign groups, including some backed by the Russian government, used social media advertisements to influence voters and break political debate.

In the run-up to the 2020 elections, technology companies took very different approaches to the question. alphabet Inc.’s

Google has prevented advertisers from targeting political messages based on user interests derived from their browsing or search history. Twitter Inc.

no longer accepted most of the political advertisements.

Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook has suspended political ads on its platform in the US for a period up to and after the election, and announced earlier this month that it would stop political ads based on sensitive categories such as race and political views.

At least some tech industry lobbyists said they support the general idea behind the EU’s proposed political advertising rules, given the risk that several European countries could enact conflicting national rules. “More orientation at EU level and a uniform policy for political advertising would be better, especially for smaller companies, than dealing with a patchwork of different state rules for political advertising,” says Christian Borggreen, Vice President and Head of the Brussels office of Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents companies such as Facebook from Meta and Google from Alphabet Inc.

A spokeswoman for Meta said the company welcomed the proposal and has long called for EU-wide regulation of political advertising. Google didn’t immediately have a comment.

Twitter said it bans political advertising because “we believe political reach should be earned, not bought”. The company said it has also restricted and removed the microtargeting of cause-based advertising.

Some tech activists expressed support for the law, but hoped it would be expanded to ban more forms of microtargeting of ads for political purposes. “We will have to pay careful attention to how the European Parliament and the Council are tackling the problematic issue of microtargeting in the upcoming legislative process,” said Raphaël Kergueno, Policy Officer at Transparency International, an anti-corruption group.

Write to Sam Schechner at sam.schechner@wsj.com

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