Open Letter: EU must protect fundamental freedoms for online political speech

As EU lawmakers negotiate important new transparency rules for online political ads, AlgorithmWatch and 8 other civil society organizations are calling on the German government to address serious risks to democratic pluralism and freedom of expression contained in the Council’s most recent proposal.

The official version of this open letter was sent in German.

Dear Federal Minister Wissing,
Dear Federal Minister Faeser,
Dear Federal Minister Lemke,
Dear Federal Minister Bushman,

We are writing you today to encourage you to continue advocating for transparency in paid political communications by not watering down and being too vague on the draft European regulation on transparency and targeting of political advertising. We are very concerned that some developments in the legislative process pose a significant risk to democratic pluralism and freedom of expression.

Political ads are an important and established part of election campaigns and social opinion-formation, but also have the potential to contribute to social divisions and polarization between political camps. In particular, the collection and processing of data by large tech companies for (political) advertising purposes poses risks to the privacy and free expression of all voters and to the integrity of democratic processes such as elections. The European Commission's proposal published in November 2021 is an important step to address these risks both online and offline.

The Commission's proposal was improved in some places in the Council, but it still has three major weaknesses that need to be addressed in the short term:

First, it is of utmost importance that the regulation does not put paid political advertising and unpaid political expression on equal footing. For this to happen, there must be a clearer and more explicit definition of what counts as a paid service in political communication. Political statements that are not paid for (either in their production or dissemination) should not be subject to any restrictions other than those already in place under freedom of expression. Otherwise, there would be a risk of tremendously limiting the ability of individuals and organizations to participate in political discourse.

Second, the Council should refrain from introducing exceptions to the targeting rules. We support all those in the Council who advocate for a ban on the use of particularly sensitive data such as ideology, sexual orientation or religious affiliation in targeting without exception. This and other data can be used to divide people into small, homogeneous groups to whom targeted paid messages can be played. This harbors the potential for abuse and discrimination. The majority of people reject such personalized political advertising. Moreover, if the regulation were to allow exceptions, it would fall short of the targeting restrictions on sensitive data from the EU's recently enacted Digital Services Act (DSA). Therefore, Article 12(2) of the draft regulation should be deleted.

Third, we are concerned that well-intentioned special rules for official government communications may have unintended negative effects. In the Council version from 22 November 2022, portions of government communications are exempt from the rules. While it is appropriate and sensible to allow public communications from governments, there is a risk that paid government communications will be privileged over opposition or civil society ads. Any exemptions from the rules of the regulation should be worded precisely enough to prevent such favoritism. We support the important and ambitious goals in the Commission, Council and European Parliament on transparency of political advertising. The Council has the opportunity to push for these goals in the short term if its version advocates for a clear definition and clear targeting rules. We call on the German government to work with other member states to achieve this in the negotiations in the Council.


Stiftung Neue Verantwortung e. V.
D64  – Zentrum für Digitalen Fortschritt e. V.
Deutsche Vereinigung für Datenschutz e.V. (DVD)
Digitale Freiheit e.V.
Digitale Gesellschaft e.V.
Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung e.V. (FIfF)
Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V. (GI)
Wikimedia Deutschland e. V.

Read more on our policy & advocacy work on ADM in the public sphere.