Facebook on Tuesday (30 March) told Irish lawmakers to hold off on going ahead with proposed rules to regulate online political advertising until the European Commission presents its own legislation in the field.
Speaking before the Irish Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Local Government, executives from both Facebook and Twitter were questioned on their views in the context of plans to regulate online political advertising as part of Ireland’s Electoral Reform Bill.
The bill foresees greater scrutiny of online political advertising surrounding elections and puts forward new transparency obligations, including information on who has paid for the ad, why an individual has been targeted, and the cost of the ad placement itself.
However, Facebook says the move could have negative privacy implications and argues it could set Ireland on a collision course with the European Union, as part of a broader legislative framework on the bloc covering the Digital Services Act (DSA), the European Democracy Action Plan, and legislation on online political advertising planned for later this year.
The DSA plans aim to broadly regulate online content, while the Democracy Action Plan seeks to protect EU elections by increasing trust across the platform ecosystem by tackling challenges associated with political advertising and disinformation.
Meanwhile, the EU executive is currently conducting a public consultation on future legislative efforts in the field of online political advertising, planned for the third quarter of this year.
“The European Commission has said that the European Democracy Action Plan intends to introduce a separate legislative instrument, which will provide for transparency of political advertising on an EU-wide basis, and we expect that to appear in the next six months,” Dualta Ó Broin, head of Public Policy at Facebook Ireland, told the committee.
“It would seem to us, given that that instrument is just on the horizon, to at least wait to see what it is or what its scope is going to be before bringing in detailed provisions,” he added.
The Facebook executive also noted that the company had “privacy concerns” about disclosing information related to the source of a political advertisement in the EU, given the strong privacy rights safeguarded in Europe.
“If you release the exact targeting data for an ad, it might be possible for bad actors to work back from the targeting criteria and the audience to figure out who the individuals were. At a very high level, that’s what our concern is,” Ó Broin said, adding that Facebook had raised this issue at the level of the European Digital Media Observatory.
Moreover, in a document obtained by EURACTIV, Facebook also said it believes that the Digital Services Act could come into conflict with Irish efforts to regulate online political advertising.
“The Digital Services Act will impose EU-wide standards and obligations for platforms in a variety of spaces, including online advertising transparency,” the document reads.
“Implementing a different set of standards when this regulation is on the horizon would directly contradict the clear aim of the Digital Services Act and the European Democracy Action Plan, which is to create one common standard across the EU and to avoid regulatory fragmentation on content, political advertising and matters pertaining to elections integrity,” it continued.
Specifically for online advertising as part of the DSA, the EU executive proposed rules that would give users of online platforms immediate information on the sources of the ads they see online, including granular information on why an individual has been targeted with a specific advertisement – certain efforts that actually appear close to Ireland’s move to clamp down on online political advertising as part of the Electoral Reform Bill.
Facebook under pressure for microtargeting
Meanwhile lawmakers criticised Facebook for using microtargeting for political ads, a feature of their service that acquired infamy in the aftermath of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Microtargeting is a technique often used by political groups that analyses personal data to predict the interests of a specific audience. The practice forms the fundamental business model of several large social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Irish Social Democrat Cian O’Callaghan pressed Facebook’s Ó Broin on the company’s stance on microtargeting of political ads in the context of elections and asked whether it wouldn’t be a prudent move to ban this practice outright.
“We don’t agree that banning microtargeting is the correct approach,” Ó Broin responded, adding that increased “transparency” was preferable for Facebook and citing the company’s comprehensive “ads library” which provides certain background information on ads placed across the platform.
However, microtargeting could very well come under the scope of the new rules for political online advertising foreseen at the EU level for later this year.
Speaking at an online event at the beginning of March, Renate Nikolay, Head of Cabinet of Commission Vice-President Věra Jourova, raised the issue of how best to deal with such questionable practices.
Nikolay said a potential ban on microtargeting was a “debate that needs to be had” as one possible way to avoid the amplification of certain harmful or misleading advertising online.
Other stakeholders in Brussels also believe that tougher rules are required on the practice.
In early February, the institutional data protection watchdog, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), said that the bloc should prohibit targeted advertising as part of new rules against Big Tech platforms in the Digital Services Act.
“Given the multitude of risks associated with online targeted advertising, the EDPS urges the co-legislators to consider additional rules going beyond transparency,” the body’s recommendation on the Digital Services Act states.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]