Google to Demand More Disclosure From Buyers of European Election Ads

Posted November 21, 2018 7:46 p.m. EST

LONDON — Google said Wednesday that it would begin requiring more information from buyers of online ads linked to next year’s European Parliament elections, expanding a program introduced for political ads in the United States.

The company said in a blog post that people and groups buying ads that mention a political party, a candidate or an officeholder related to the parliamentary elections would need to make clear who is paying for the advertisement. The company will also require verification that they are citizens, legal residents or groups lawfully allowed to participate in the election.

Google and Facebook, the two largest online advertising platforms, are facing pressure to protect against the kind of foreign misinformation campaigns that were discovered in the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The companies operate advertising systems that are largely automated, making the networks immensely profitable but harder to police.

The European Parliament elections, in May, will be for 705 seats across 27 countries. The vote doesn’t often draw widespread attention, but the coming campaign is being closely watched as a wider referendum on the role of the European Union in the region. On one side is an emerging populist wing, represented by anti-immigration groups in Italy and Germany, that’s wary of the influence Brussels carries in the region. On the other side are supporters of a more united Europe, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Leaders in Europe are worried that the campaign is vulnerable to outside influence. Turnout and the name recognition of candidates have traditionally been low, making the outcome easier to sway.

The concerns were heightened in August when Facebook disclosed that groups linked to Iran and Russia had bought ads aimed at Europe. In Ireland, the company also faced questions this year about foreign funding of ads during its contentious referendum on legalizing abortions. Google responded by banning all referendum-related ads.

Google said that the transparency rules will take effect in January, but that users might not see any spending disclosures until February or March, depending on when campaign advertising ramps up.

“We’re thinking hard about elections and how we continue to support democratic processes around the world, including by bringing more transparency to political advertising online, by helping connect people to useful and relevant election-related information, and by working to protect election information online,” Lie Junius, director of public policy for Google in Europe, said in the blog post Wednesday.

Facebook is also expanding many of its election protection efforts for the European Parliamentary campaign, including removing fake accounts and working with fact-checking organizations to flag misinformation. Another tool allows people to search all the political ads a group has run across the social network.

The election advertising policies by the Silicon Valley giants don’t address broader challenges about the spread of misinformation on their platforms. The EU has called on Google, Facebook and Twitter to do more to identify and remove false news.

In September, the companies agreed to a voluntary code of conduct to tackle misinformation, a move criticized by groups that have called for new laws and regulations.