Speech by Vice-President Jourová on proposals to reinforce democracy and the integrity of elections

Almost a year ago, in December, I was in this press room presenting the European Democracy Action Plan.

Today, I am announcing very concrete deliverables of this Plan – namely the democracy package. In this package, you will find new law on transparency of political advertising and proposals to update the current EU rules concerning EU mobile citizens and their right to vote in municipal and European elections. We are also updating rules on the statute and funding of European political parties and foundations.

This package addresses the need to protect our democracy and its key elements, such as free and fair elections and open public debate. It is also a continuation of the ambition of this Commission to design a digital rulebook and to hold the digital world more accountable.

We have seen too many examples of the risks stemming from the digital realm, like the riots on the Capitol Hill this year, like Cambridge Analytica, like the Brexit referendum or the latest revelations of Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower.

Today’s package is a reaction to these events and also to loopholes identified in our systems.

The most innovative piece of this package is the political ads regulation. It has never been done before. Our aim is to put order in the world of political advertising, especially online.

Digital advertising for political purposes is becoming an unchecked race of dirty and opaque methods. The voters increasingly have a problem distinguishing if the content they see is paid for by someone or organic. A recent survey suggests 40% of respondents have difficulty recognising organic from paid content. They also see an increasing amount of disinformation online.

We want to change this and bring transparency to the levels never seen before.

Once this law is adopted, the users will be able to clearly distinguish the ads from organic content, because paid content will be clearly labelled. Citizens will be able to know why they are seeing an add, who payed for it, what data were used to target them.

The rules for meaningful transparency will apply across the ads production chain, be it political party, PR company, digital platform, data broker or influencer. This is not only about Facebook or Google. Without providing this information, political advertising online will be illegal.

The second issue I would like to highlight are the limits to micro-targeting techniques, meaning the techniques that process our personal data to target or amplify the political ads.

It is clear this is a black box today. A myriad of data analytics and communication firms work daily with our data to try to figure out the best way to convince us to buy something or vote for someone or not to vote at all. We have seen a glimpse into this world through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where personal data were used and abused to explore our vulnerabilities. The experts observe the same trends in disinformation campaigns.

We must change it.

The sensitive data that people decide to share with friends on social media cannot be used to target them for political purposes. I am talking here about information like religion, sexual orientation, race or political views.

This is already the case under our data protection rules, but this explicit provision will boost the enforcement of this protection.

Then, we require those companies that use the targeting techniques, which are often powered by AI, to tell public what they are doing. Either companies like Facebook are able to publically say who they are targeting, why and how or they will not be able to do it. We introduce the principle ‘explain or restrain’, because freedom to speak does not mean freedom to reach.

We fully respect the freedom of speech. We do not go into debate about false or right content. This is really about empowering the users to understand better what is happening behind algorithms and to possibly decide to opt out of it. It is also about restoring basic fairness in political campaigns. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation.

It builds on the Digital Services Act but – as lex specialis – is goes further than the Act.

When it comes to other elements of today’s package, we do several revisions of existing laws.

For the so-called mobile EU citizens who have rights to vote in the European Parliament and municipal elections in the Member State where they reside, we update the existing Directives so that they receive more accurate information regarding their rights and can exercise their rights more easily. There are 12 million mobile EU citizens with the right to vote, yet their turnout tends to be low.

In order to support European political parties and foundations we propose amendments to the existing Regulation. This is an evolution, not a revolution.

The aim of the revision is mainly to increase the financial viability of European political parties and foundations, facilitate their interactions with their national member parties, improve transparency of donations and cut excessive administrative burden.

Our proposal also clarifies that nothing should prevent European political parties from campaigning cross-border within the EU, an issue that had become very relevant in the last European elections.

Importantly, we are also closing loopholes in the transparency regime for the donations and we bring in new due diligence mechanism for donations above 3000 euro as well as empowerment to the relevant authority to request additional information.

And we are increasing safeguards for contributions from member parties beyond the EU. Contributions from members outside the EU will be allowed only from those located in countries belonging to the Council of Europe and abiding by the values of Art. 2 of the Treaty. They will be capped at 10% of total contributions of that European party.

With this package we are making a lot of unprecedented steps. We are addressing the problems we know and we are putting more light into black boxes to find out what is going on

But most importantly, we give people more tools to understand better who tries to influence their political views and how.

In the end, democracy is about free choice and elections free from disinformation and hidden manipulation. I trust this package will put more order into our political debate.

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