The Council of Europe has issued a set of guidelines to its 46 member states to address the challenges to the fairness and legitimacy of electoral processes created by new digital political communication techniques. These challenges include the possible abusive use of microtargeting, personal data, bots and algorithms, as well as disinformation campaigns. The guidelines, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in a Recommendation, establish a number of principles to ensure the transparency of online electoral communication and expenditure, prevent manipulation of the electorate and ensure that political parties and candidates can compete on equal terms. They also tackle issues such as data protection, content regulation and media coverage of campaigns.
The Committee of Ministers stresses the need for these guidelines since electoral communication is increasingly taking place online, allowing online platforms to take precedence over the traditional media as platforms for political advertising, which is still largely unregulated. Regarding the governance of the online election campaigning, the recommendation advocates for a co-regulatory approach, which would require states, online platforms and civil society organisations to collaborate to develop appropriate solutions, including independent oversight mechanisms and the adoption of a framework of sanctions for non-compliance.
The guidelines highlight the crucial need for transparency of political and electoral advertising online. Specific recommendations are made concerning the transparency of financing and electoral spending through disclosure obligations, the clear identification of campaigners and the archiving of the advertisements placed or distributed online. Another critical recommendation concerns the need to establish safeguards against the intentional spread of electoral disinformation while ensuring that any restrictions of content are carried out in a transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory manner.
Finally, the guidelines require that citizens receive information from online platforms on why they are targeted with political ads and that they can opt out of such advertising. The Committee of Ministers also adopted a Recommendation to member states on the impacts of digital technologies on freedom of expression, aimed at assisting key actors, internet intermediaries in particular, in ensuring that digital technologies serve rather than curtail freedom of expression, and a Recommendation establishing 15 principles for media and communication governance.