The European Union has edged forward with plans to overhaul how tech giants are regulated in a bid to fight illegality online, improve competition, and protect democracy by reining in political advertising and misinformation.
Under new proposals laid out by the European Commission, platforms such as Facebook would have to openly label political advertising, identify its sponsor, and provide data to users including why they were targeted, the sponsor's details, and how much was spent on the ad.
"Digital advertising for political purposes is becoming an unchecked race of dirty and opaque methods," European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova said. "New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation."
Meanwhile, the 27 member states agreed their joint position on the forthcoming Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, a key stage in a vast legislative effort to modernise the EU's regulation of the online sphere that will now move to a final negotiation phase with the European Parliament and Commission.
The principle agreed by the member states is that “what is illegal offline should also be illegal online”.
Irish officials are satisfied that the 27 member states have agreed to preserve the country-of-origin principle, which allows a company registered in Ireland to follow Irish law and operated throughout the EU, something seen as essential for ease of business in the bloc.
Some countries that have a tougher approach to the regulation of the tech sector had sought to be able to ‘reach across’ to apply national enforcement measures to the digital giants based in Ireland.
But as a compromise, the European Commission will have an enforcement role when it comes to “systemic infringements” committed by very large online platform and search engines, something that the Irish government is satisfied with. It has also committed to stepping up domestic enforcement.
There is scepticism about whether the commission’s proposals on political advertising go far enough, with analysts pointing out loopholes, including that it may only to self-declared political advertising and not propaganda uploaded via accounts set up to look like ordinary users.
It would apply to messages posted by or on behalf of political actors, as well as content “which is liable to influence the outcome of an election or referendum, a legislative or regulatory process or voting behaviour,” according to the Commissions.
The restrictions would also not apply if users consent for their personal data to be used for such targeting. However, online consent opt-ins that require people to read highly technical terms and conditions are not seen as an effective way of meaningfully informing users.
Facebook, which has frequently been criticised for a lack of transparency in political advertising including in recent Irish referendums, welcomed the proposals.
"We have long called for EU-wide regulation on political ads and are pleased that the Commission's proposal addresses some of the more difficult questions, in particular when it comes to cross border advertising," read a statement by the company, recently renamed Meta.