EU takes once again aim at online political ads

This time EC Vice-President Vera Jourova insist on audit of social networks' "black box" algorithms

Photo: EPA European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova

Brussels is demanding an audit of those big tech platforms' algorithms that are used to determine how online political advertising is being served up to voters. The desire for boosted scrutiny was expressed by European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova in an interview to Financial Times.

According to her, the “black box” algorithms that power parts of the internet, mostly big social platforms, such as Facebook and Google, should be open to “audit” by researchers and other third parties. Jourova also requires the public to be given greater clarity about how these algorithms determine what they watch and consume via the web.

In response to concerns that democracy could be destabilised by internet campaigns, Jourova also insists on improved disclosure of the parties and funding behind online campaigning, with Member States asked to impose the same kind of tough pre-election requirements that they demand from conventional campaigns. 

“If you put something into a black box and then from that black box something comes which is pretty much influencing your life, you should know what’s happening inside,” Jourova, who is commissioner for values and transparency, told the Financial Times.

Her comments come ahead of the publication of a commission white paper next week on proposed EU regulations on artificial intelligence, when Brussels will warn that people have “very limited understanding” of how algorithms work, according to a draft seen by the FT.

It also comes at a time when Brussels is working across multiple fronts to find ways of boosting the accountability of big tech platforms amid concerns at their power over personal data and their susceptibility to disinformation campaigns.

However, software industry lobbyists in Brussels argue regulators may not have the right people or technical expertise to audit algorithms.

“It is so easy to say ‘let’s audit algorithms’ and put it on paper but how are you going to implement it? This is my question to the commission,” said Karina Stan, director of EU policy and head of the Brussels office at the Developers Alliance.

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