How To

November 28, 2018

Ok Google, protect my democracy

The search engine will bar non-EU sources from purchasing political ads leading up to European Parliament elections

Max Traeger

3 min read

Google announced on Thursday that it would produce detailed transparency rules before the European elections in 2019 — forcing advertisers buying online political ads to provide evidence that they were either Europe-based entities or EU citizens.

EU officials worry about foreign meddling in the approaching election, with Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová highlighting Russia as the “most cited source of activities interfering with elections in Europe.”

One worry is that bots may try to tip the balance at the ballot box to favour Eurosceptic parties, such as Matteo Salvini’s Italian League or Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally.


“Others are learning from Russia,” Jourová explains, “we have observed other countries and private interests increase their capabilities for election interference.”

This form of ‘computational propaganda’ is described in a study by the Oxford Internet Institute, which analyses how Russian-directed online ad campaigns have already targeted political actors in Poland and Ukraine.

Following Russian interference in U.S. elections and Cambridge Analytica, tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google have remained under severe pressure from legislators on each side of the Atlantic to ensure voters are protected from targeting by foreign actors in upcoming elections.

Similar to the plan it deployed during the November midterms in the US, Google’s strategy for the 2019 European election focuses on regulating the targeted advertising it provides.

In a recent post on its blog, Google said political adverts from EU-based organisations or EU citizens mentioning “a political party, candidate or current officeholder” must “make it clear to voters who are paying for the advertising.”

Many in Europe remain unconvinced that left to its own devices Silicon Valley will suitably protect elections better than legislators. Will Moy, director of the British-based fact checking charity Full Fact asks “When did we contract out the rules for democracy to private companies? The election ad laws aren’t working for the internet age…[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.”

This is not the first time Google has intervened to regulate political advertising before a European poll. Google banned all adverts regarding the Irish abortion referendum from its platform two weeks before polling day, after concerns about foreign groups using loopholes in campaign funding legislation to target Irish voters.

Irish politicians were also outspoken in their worries about Google’s effects on their democracy. James Lawless TD, the technology spokesperson for the opposition party Fianna Fáil, said at the time that Google’s decision to ban adverts related to the referendum had come “too late in the day”. He went on to say the campaign had made it obvious that Irish legislators must regulate the actions of advertising on tech giants “in the same way that steps were taken in the past to regulate political advertising on traditional forms of print and broadcast media”.

Google’s current model of political self-regulation will unlikely be enough to satisfy many European officials in the long-run. With more and more calls to regulate not only Google but also Facebook and Twitter — Silicon Valleys’s goliaths could meet their David in European regulators.