Commercial radio provides significant social and public value, reaching large and diverse audiences across Europe. Its mix of music, news, entertainment and speech is highly valued by listeners who constantly identify radio as the most trusted medium in Europe. Political advertising on radio and other broadcast platforms must follow strict regulatory obligations adopted at national level to ensure advertising spots do not harm or mislead listeners. This is not the case for online platforms, which play an increasingly important role in Europeans’ lives. The absence of a legal framework for online political advertising is a cause for concern for the protection of European’s fundamental rights and risks undermining fair competition with trusted sources of information such as commercial radio.
 Radio is the most trusted in Europe according to Europeans. Latest report: Standard Eurobarometer n°92, November 2019.
The Association of European Radios (AER) is the Europe-wide trade body for commercial radio, representing the interests of companies operating over 5,000 commercial radio stations to the EU Institutions. AER promotes the development of commercially-funded radio broadcasting in Europe, by ensuring a fair and sustainable economic framework for radio so it can continue to thrive.
AER welcomes the European Commission’s initiative announced in its European Democracy Action Plan to address the concerns raised by political content in the online environment.
It agrees with the conclusions drawn in its Inception Impact Assessment with regards to the potential negative impacts on electoral processes and democratic debate caused by online advertising and the digitalisation of political campaigning, when it remains completely unregulated. Online political advertising can disseminate disinformation and manipulate information, which may be amplified thanks to new techniques to micro-target and tailor specific messages to citizens.
Given its influential role, commercial radio is tightly regulated at national level and overseen by independent regulators so political advertising on air does not harm or mislead listeners. Online platforms on the other hand, while they reach and impact millions of Europeans, do not have to abide by similar rules. The absence of a legal framework for online political advertising (non-commercial advertising) on online platforms is a cause for concern for the protection of citizens and risks undermining fair competition with commercial radio providers.
POLITICAL ADVERTISING ON COMMERCIAL RADIO
There is no EU regulatory framework for political advertising or electoral advertising; the definition of political advertising thereby differs from one country to another so it reflects Member States’ rich and diverse political and electoral systems.
Political advertising on commercial radio is highly regulated and limited, if not banned, in many EU Member States, balanced out with supervised (and often free) airtime to political parties. Its place as the most trusted medium also means that radio plays a key role in supporting media pluralism, ultimately reflecting that radio is subject to notably lower risks of political control in Europe compared to other types of media, in particular to digital media.
The regulation of political advertising on commercial radio is mainly due to its status as a broadcaster, with impartiality obligations requirements in relation to political issues. This ensures that radio stations apply specific regulations that closely consider election and referendum periods. In addition, commercial radio broadcasters are generally required to refrain from the publication of opinion poll findings on election days. They must equally enforce quiet periods prior to election day.
Political advertising on commercial radio is regulated in relation to transparency, advertising time, cost, and paid political advertising criteria. These rules may differ from one radio station to another, and depend on national, regional and local legislation. It is also worth noting the distinction between advertising messages that are political, as opposed to public information advertising from Government, which is generally regulated in the same way as commercial advertising. For these reasons, we caution against the adoption EU rules that would add an unnecessary layer of regulation on commercial radio.
REGULATING ONLINE POLITICAL ADVERTISING
In comparison to commercial radio, online platforms are not bound by similar national frameworks for political advertising they disseminate in the online sphere. While Europeans have increased access to media content online, asymmetrical regulation between the different means of disseminating that content is inappropriate to protect citizens. It is therefore key that online platforms which disseminate political advertising are subject to a clear and strong legal framework.
Any definition of political advertising, although it should observe the principles and definitions developed at national level, must encompass the following notions:
- Advertising raising money for a political objective (cause, candidate, party etc.)
- Advertising attacking another political movement, actor, party or group
- Advertising promoting a political view without clearly being a political ad (an ‘issues ad’)
These criteria should apply regardless of whether political advertising has been disseminated outside of an election period, and should be cross-border by nature. Furthermore, it should be clearly distinguished from commercial advertising and public information messages that are already regulated at EU level and complemented by self-regulation.
Aligned with legislation applying to commercial radio, and to level the playing field, online political advertising should abide by the following principles:
- Transparency requirements: clear and specific labels, including information on the sponsor of the political advertising
- Disclosure obligations for European political parties: ad spending in real time and advertising targeting services used
- Ultimately, micro-targeting, as a means to targeting and amplification of online political methods, should be limited within the EU data protection framework and further regulated as to ensure greater transparency of the techniques used.
The Association of European Radios supports the European Commission’s initiative on online political advertising. While political advertising on commercial radio is tightly regulated, online platforms do no have to comply with any rules. To ensure a level playing field, it is paramount that online platforms are regulated for the political advertising they disseminate. Any definition of political advertising should encompass the diverse nature of advertising and different techniques used (e.g., micro-targeting) while upholding the national developments and be distinguished from commercial advertising. We believe that any piece of legislation with this regard should aim for the protection of Europeans’ fundamental rights and fair competition between competing actors.
For more information, please contact the AER office in Brussels at aer(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)aereurope.org.
 Council of Europe, Study on the use of internet in electoral campaigns, 2017.
 Monitoring Media Pluralism in the Digital Era, p. 12, op. cit.
 Dobber T, Ó Fathaigh R, Zuiderveen Borgesius, F. J, The regulation of online political micro-targeting in Europe, 2019. According to Zuiderveen Borgesius et al., 2018, (online political) micro-targeting consists of the collection of one’s personal data to identify groups of people susceptible to specific messages, to send the latter tailored online messages. Not only does it differ from regular targeting because it considers matter of audience homogeneity; the principle itself seems to be applied exclusively to political advertising.