Google plans to roll out transparency rules ahead of the European Parliament election that will force advertisers to prove they are either EU citizens or Europe-based entities, the company said Thursday, in a move designed to fight back against election manipulation.
European officials are worried about the risk of meddling in the upcoming election, which concerns more than 500 million citizens, with European Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová pointing to Russia last week as the “most cited source of activities interfering with elections in Europe.”
A key concern is that cyber influence campaigns could try to tip the balance at the ballot box in favor of Euroskeptic parties — like Marine Le Pens National Rally in France or Matteo Salvinis League in Italy — ahead of the election next May.
“Others are learning from Russia,” Jourová said. “We have observed other countries and private interests increase their capabilities for election interference.”
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. elections, tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have been under intense pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic to make sure citizens are no longer targeted by foreign actors during elections.
Googles plan for the 2019 European election echoes what the company rolled out during the November U.S. midterms.
Political ads from EU citizens and EU-based organizations mentioning “a political party, candidate or current officeholder” will “make it clear to voters whos paying for the advertising,” Google said in a blog post. Those ads will also have to comply with the companys ad policies.
The search giant will also publish an “Election ads transparency report” for the election, which is modeled after the American version.
Issue ads gray area
However, Google has yet to clearly extend its new transparency requirements to so-called issue ads, which attempt to influence voters on an issue such as immigration or public health rather than pull them in favor of a particular candidate. Many political ads ahead of Britains Brexit referendum focused on issues rather than people, for example.
Some of the most divisive political advertising in Europe concerns public figures who have no direct link to a campaign, like Hungarian-American investor George Soros.
Google is still working on solutions for dealing with such ads.
Following a controversy regarding Facebooks process of verifying the identity of political advertisers, Google said that advertisers would now need to go through a verification process to make sure they are EU citizens or EU-based entities. Individuals and organizations will have to provide Google with official documents to prove they are not foreign actors. Cross-border advertising within the EU will likely be authorized.
The full transparency requirements policy for political ads during the 2019 European election will be announced in January. They will apply to Google Ads services such as Search ads or YouTube ads across the 27 member countries.
Google will also develop tools providing electoral information such as polling locations and provide security training to groups vulnerable to phishing attacks.
The Commission has made “election integrity” a priority: In September, the European executive branch released a code of practice on fake news signed by the biggest platforms.
However, the Commission has stopped short of legally-binding rules, issuing recommendations to protect the upcoming election, including guidelines on transparency for political advertising.