Meta bosses look at political ads ban in Europe

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Meta executives are discussing a company-wide ban on political advertising in Europe, following concerns that its social networking platforms such as Facebook and Instagram will be unable to comply with forthcoming EU regulations that target online campaigning.

Brussels regulators are drawing up new laws to come info force next year designed to force large internet groups to reveal more about the political groups behind online campaigns and which users they are targeting.

Meta, led by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, is concerned that the definition of political ads under the plan will be so broad that it will be easier to refuse all paid-for political campaigns on the company’s sites, according to two people briefed on internal discussions.

These people added the move was also being seriously considered as users are largely uninterested in such content and revenues generated from political ads are small compared with its wider business.

Between 2019 and 2020, the company generated just under $800mn in revenue from political advertising in the US, according to research group Insider Intelligence, less than 1 per cent of its total advertising revenue over the period.

People close to the matter cautioned that conversations between senior Meta executives are continuing and some are against a ban on political ads. A final decision will be made once the EU settles on a definition of what constitutes a political ad for its new regulations, the people said. Meta did not respond to requests for comment.

In the wake of the US 2016 election, social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok and Twitter were criticised for failing to clamp down on misinformation and conspiracies to prevent election manipulation.

Zuckerberg, in particular, has refused to fact-check political advertising, arguing that private companies should not be an “arbiter of truth”. However, Meta has temporarily halted political advertising in the lead up to and during significant votes, such as the US 2020 presidential election.

Under the EU proposals, groups such as Facebook and Google will be forced to be more transparent in the way they carry political advertising, such as showing how much ads costs, who paid them and how many people viewed the content.

The European Commission, European parliament and EU member states are due to agree a final definition for political advertising under the new regulation by June 5.

But EU institutions appear in broad consensus with the commission description of political advertising as the promotion of a message by a “political actor or which is liable to influence the outcome of an election”.

Regulators in Brussels are in disagreement, however, over the extent of limitations the regulation may place Big Tech groups on accessing user data in order to target political advertising.

One EU official aware of Meta’s internal discussions played down the effect the new law will have on the company. “Their responsibility is minimal when it comes to policing political ads and they already do a lot in terms of transparency.”

The official claimed that Meta’s move is designed to add pressure on the EU to narrow its definition of political advertising further to make it simpler to enforce the new rules.

“The question for Meta is how far it wants to adapt and at what cost,’ said a person with knowledge of the company’s discussions.

Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

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