Google will launch a new set of transparency tools in Europe ahead of the 2019 European Parliament election, the latest in a series of co-ordinated efforts by tech companies to combat the manipulation of public votes.
Voters across the EU will choose hundreds of new MEPs next May and Brussels is concerned about online propaganda from populist and Eurosceptic forces and possible interference by Russia.
As part of Google’s EU election project, every political campaign across the bloc will be required to verify their identity and nationality before being allowed to buy advertising on Google platforms. Approved adverts will also have to display who paid for them.
“With these EU elections, there is no one law governing it. So we are creating a pan-European policy to reflect the spirit of these laws,” said a Google spokesperson.
The search giant will also build a searchable archive of every political ad in real time, including information about their purchasers, spending and reach.
It will also show what age group, gender and location each campaign tries to target. “We do not enable advertisers to target citizens based on inferred political leanings in the EU, which is different from the US where that is accepted practice,” the Google spokesperson said. “In the US, they can very broadly target left-leaning and right-leaning audiences.”
Google first pledged to make changes to its political ad-buying policies late last year, after facing global political pressure regarding election meddling and false news infecting their platforms.
After being grilled by US lawmakers alongside tech giants Facebook and Twitter on how Russian operatives manipulated their ad services, Google said it would trial a transparency system for the first time for the US midterm elections earlier this month. This will be the first time they will test these tools outside of the US.
Facebook announced similar changes in October 2017 that would include disclosing in ads who paid for them. Facebook said the new identity verification would “help prevent abuse” by the “bad actors that try to misuse our platform”.
While experts acknowledged the efforts being made by Google and Facebook, concerns about the scale of online political advertising remain.
“Facebook, despite its huge number of users, ultimately has more control over advertising on its platform because it is a walled ecosystem,” said Martin Moore, lecturer in political communications at King’s College London. “Google, on the other hand, is making much of its ad revenue on the open web. There are 14m publishers using Google AdSense and their whole system is designed deliberately to be as open and frictionless as possible. So there are liable to be many ads that get around those systems, deliberately or unconsciously.”
Others worry about online election policies being left to Silicon Valley corporations to craft, rather than lawmakers. “When did we contract out the rules for democracy to private companies? The election ad laws aren’t working for the internet age,” said Will Moy, director of UK fact checking charity Full Fact, which published a report on the topic. “[Google] may have done a really worthwhile and valuable thing. But it is ridiculous that they are the ones who get to choose. The rules should be made through open, democratic processes, not by internet companies.”
“The next step is for parliament to make our election laws up to date to help protect elections against modern threats.”