Protecting our democratic space

The European Parliament’s role in creating a digital space where people are exposed to a wider range of accurate information, political advertising is transparent, and media can operate freely.

Ensuring a healthy digital space is crucial for a well-functioning democracy and the protection of our fundamental human rights. Digital technologies have made us European citizens more vulnerable to disinformation and foreign interference and, as European elections loom, the need to ensure the people’s trust in election campaigns and protect them from abuse becomes even more pressing.

“What is illegal offline, must be illegal online,” states Sandro Gozi, former Italian Secretary of State for European Affairs, now Member of the European Parliament for the Renew Europe Group. Representing France on the list of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, he was the EP’s rapporteur for the proposal for an EU regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising.

With 470 votes in favour, 50 against, and 105 abstentions, members of the European Parliament adopted the Regulation on the Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising during the plenary session held in the last week of February. The new rules aim to increase transparency and combat foreign influence in elections by regulating political advertising, particularly online ads. Additionally, they establish a framework for easier cross-border political advertising within the EU.

REGULATION ON THE TRANSPARENCY AND TARGETING OF POLITICAL ADVERTISING

Greater transparency and accountability

Under the new rules, political advertising will have to be clearly labelled. Citizens, authorities, and journalists will be able to easily obtain information on whether they are being targeted with an ad, who is paying for it, how much is being paid, and to which elections or referendum it is linked. All political advertising and related information will be stored in a public online repository. To limit foreign interference in European democratic processes, sponsoring ads from outside the EU will be prohibited in the three-month period before an election or referendum.

Regulating targeting strategies

In order to protect voters from manipulation, targeting and amplification techniques will only be possible for online political advertising based on personal data collected from the subject once their explicit and separate consent has been given. Special categories of personal data (e.g. ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation) or minors’ data cannot be used.

Protecting freedom of expression

The rules only concern remunerated political advertisements. They do not affect the content of political ads nor rules on conduct and financing of political campaigns. Personal views, political opinions, such as any unsponsored journalistic content, or communication on the organisation and participation in elections (e.g. announcements of candidates) by official national or EU sources are not impacted.

“We are not banning anything,” Sandro Gozi made clear. “We only require more tansparency in the case of activities intended to influence the behaviour of citizens and votes the outcome of an election or a referendum.” He was participating in a seminar in Strasbourg with members of the Press from EU Member States, incuding a representative of The Journal.

MEP Sandro Gozi (France, Renew) addressing the media seminar ‘Safeguarding Democracy: the role of the media / European Elections 2024’ in Strasbourg.

Two weeks earlier, during a press conference held soon after the new legislation’s approval in plenary, Gozi launched a heartfelt appeal to the major online platforms: “With the European elections approaching, we urge all major online platforms to start applying the new rules as soon as possible and ensure the digital space remains a safe place to exchange political ideas and opinions.”

MEP Sandro Gozi (France, Renew) at the Press conference on the final vote on Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising. Photo: Emilie Gomez/European Union.

Meanwhile, Portuguese MEP Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D)’s shadow rapporteur on ‘Transparency and targeting of political advertising’, had this to say on the new legislation:  “With these new rules we aim to ensure that all elections across the EU are more transparent and to counterattack disinformation and foreign interference. We are making it easy for citizens to recognise political advertisements, to understand who is behind them, and to know whether they have received a targeted advertisement, so that they are better placed to make informed choices.

“The Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament successfully ensured the setting up of a European public repository for online political advertisements. The repository will contain copies of the online ads and detailed information on the identity of sponsors, the amount spent on the campaign, and engagement metrics.

MEP Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques (Portugal, S&D), shadow rapporteur on ‘Transparency and targeting of political advertising’.

“Foreign interference in electoral processes is likely to continue. This represents a severe threat to the security of the EU and its member states. In this context, the S&Ds pushed to introduce a ban on the financing of political advertising in the EU by sponsors who are non-EU citizens, or not residents or established in the EU three months or less before an electoral process or referendum.”

Meanwhile, in the media seminar in Strasbourg, Sandro Gozi made clear that there is no silver bullet to curb on disinformation and foreign interference. Instead, the EU is acting through a mosaic of political and legislative action to better protect our democracy.

THE DIGITAL SERVICES ACT

The Regulation on the Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising, in fact, builds upon another piece of European legislation, the Digital Services Act, which entered into force on 1st November 2022 and became fully applicable on 17th February 2024.

That legislation is a horizontal instrument that aims to create a safer and trusted online environment. It puts in place a framework of layered responsibilities targeted at different types of online intermediary services, including network infrastructure services (e.g. cloud and webhosting), online platform services (e.g. app stores and social media platforms), and services provided by very large online platforms and very large online search engines that pose particular risks in the dissemination of illegal content and societal harms.

All providers offering such online intermediary services in the EU have to comply with a range of obligations to ensure transparency, accountability, and responsibility for their actions according to their role, size, and impact in the online ecosystem.

THE EUROPEAN MEDIA FREEDOM ACT

Meanwhile, during last month’s plenary session, MEPs gave their final green light to new legislation to protect EU journalists and media from political or economic interference.

Under the European Media Freedom Act, member states are required to protect media independence. The act, adopted by a vote of 464 to 92 with 65 abstentions, also prohibits any interference in editorial decisions.

Protecting journalists’ work

Authorities will be prohibited from pressing journalists and editors to disclose their sources, including by detaining them, sanctions, office searches, or by installing intrusive surveillance software on their electronic devices. The European Parliament added sizeable safeguards to allow the use of spyware, which will be possible only on a case-by-case basis and subject to authorisation by a judicial authority investigating serious crimes punishable by a custodial sentence. Even in these cases, subjects will have the right to be informed after the surveillance has occurred and will be able to challenge it in court.

Editorial independence of public media

To prevent public media outlets from being used for political purposes, their heads and board members should be selected through transparent and non-discriminatory procedures for sufficiently long terms of office. It will not be possible to dismiss them before their contract ends, unless they no longer meet the professional criteria.

Public media will have to be financed using transparent and objective procedures, and the funding should be sustainable and predictable.

Transparency of ownership

To enable the public to know who controls the media and what interests may influence reporting, all news and current affairs outlets, regardless of their size, will have to publish information about their owners in a national database, including if they are directly or indirectly owned by the state.

Fair allocation of state advertising

Media will also have to report on funds received from state advertising and on state financial support, including from non-EU countries. Public funds to media or online platforms will have to be allocated via public, proportionate, and non-discriminatory criteria. Information on state advertising expenditure will be public, including the total annual amount and the amount per outlet.

Protecting EU media freedom from big platforms

MEPs made sure to include a mechanism to prevent very big online platforms, such as Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), or Instagram, from arbitrarily restricting or deleting independent media content. Platforms will first have to distinguish independent media from non-independent sources. Media would be notified when the platform intends to delete or restrict their content and have 24 hours to respond. Only after the reply (or in the absence of it) may the platform delete or restrict the content if it still does not comply with its conditions.

Media will have the option to bring the case to an out-of-court dispute settlement body and request an opinion from the European Board for Media Services, a new EU board of national regulators to be set up by the European Media Freedom Act.

“Safeguarding the media’s freedom and independence”

Speaking at the media seminar in Strasbourg, German MEP Sabine Verheyen (EPP), chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) and the institution’s rapporteur for the European Media Freedom Act, remarked that media freedom is facing huge challenges around the world, including in Europe. This new law is not perfect, she admitted, but nonetheless a huge and historic step forward to protect media freedom and journalists.

Verheyen explained that the Media Freedom Act is not an anti-disinformation legislation, and does not censor or control content. Rather, it aims at safeguarding the freedom and independence of journalists and the media across Europe so that they can combat disinformation through high quality and serious journalism.

MEP Sabine Verheyen (Germany, EPP). Photo: Emilie Gomez/European Union.

Echoing Sandro Gozi, she said that this legislation must be seen as part of an array of legislative instruments that include the recently adopted Anti-SLAPP Directive, aimed at protecting journalists and human rights defenders from abusive court proceedings.

Main photo: PixieMe/Shutterstock

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