EU seeks to block political ads that target people's ethnicity or religion

Organizations would need to disclose how ads are paid for and how they are targeting certain groups.

© Santiago Urquijo via Getty Images

The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has proposed a ban on some types of targeted political ads that employ sensitive personal data, including ethnic origin, religion, health status or sexual orientation, unless users give explicit consent. If the rules come into force, advertisers would have to provide clear details on the criteria they use for targeting, as well as the "amplification tools or methods" they harness.

Every ad would also have to be more transparent in terms of displaying the name of the person or organization that paid for it, as well as disclosing how much was spent, where the money came from and the ad's connection to an election or referendum.

The EC is hoping these measures will help protect election integrity, largely by making it more difficult for campaigns to target and mislead marginalized groups. It said people should be able to easily tell when they see a paid political ad, whether online or offline, and take part in political discussions without being impacted by interference, manipulation or misinformation.

“Elections must not be a competition of opaque and non-transparent methods. People must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used," the EC's vice-president for values and transparency Vera Jourová said in a statement.

If the bill becomes law, EU member states will need to determine fines for breaching the rules. National data protection authorities will be tasked with monitoring how personal data is used in ad targeting and imposing fines when appropriate. The EC is hoping to enact the rules, which build on the General Data Protection Regulation and planned Digital Services Act, by spring 2023, ahead of European Parliament elections the following year.

Political ads have been a hot button issue for online platforms for several years. Facebook and Google both temporarily banned them after polls closed in the 2020 US presidential election to stem the flow of misinformation. Earlier this month, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, removed thousands of ad targeting options, including those related to ethnicity, health, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. Twitter banned all political ads in 2019.

The EC's proposed rules could also prevent some types of surreptitious data collection. Back in 2019, PR farms connected to the Republican party used Google's ad network to vacuum up email addresses of potential voters.