Update: Google’s responses have been embedded into the story.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections in May-June 2019, Google will now release a political advertising transparency report and a searchable political ads archive for India in March. Google claims that the steps will bring transparency to election ads as voters can get information about who is purchasing ads and how much money is being spent via Google.

Google will begin enforcing its election ads policy in India starting February 20, while verification and ad pre-certificate forms will be available starting on February 14. (Update: Google said that verification of both, new advertisers and pre-certificate forms will continue throughout the Lok Sabha elections.)

When asked about how Google will enforce the ‘silent period’ per the EC’s model code of conduct, Google said that it would “enforce silent periods” without explaining how.

What is a political ad?

– ads for Lok Sabha Elections which feature a political party, a political candidate or current member of the Lok Sabha or
– any ads run by a political party, political candidate, or current member of the Lok Sabha
They don’t include:
-Ads by non-political entities promoting merchandise
-Ads run by news organizations related to their coverage of political parties, Lok Sabha election campaigns, candidates or current Lok Sabha members

How will advertisers be verified?

All entities wanting to run Google ads have to be verified by Google, applications will begin February 14 and may take up to 3-5 days to be completed (Update: Google said that this would take 3-5 days depending on application volumes.) Google has also refused to comment on how much the exercise will cost, but added that it would “continue to invest” in the area. Registered political parties, registered businesses, non-profit organizations, individuals (political candidates) can run political ads. Only an authorized representative of a political party can complete the verification process, the person has to 1) verify the advertising entity’s identity, and 2) verify their own identity.

Documents required for verification are the entity’s Google Ads Customer ID, name, email address, entity name, registration number, registration document, attestation documents, agreement to Google’s election advertising terms.

Other notes:

  • Businesses outside India can run political ads in India: they have to provide a business name and address proof
  • For verification of political parties, the party has to provide an NOC authorizing the individual to run ads
  • Non-profit organizations have to declare their purpose or mission for verification

(Update: Google said it will not run those ads whose verification process in not complete.)

How will this affect transparency?

Apart from the ad archives and transparency report, other ways which may increase transparency are:

  • After entities wanting to run ads are verified, they have to submit valid pre-certificate for each ad, which is issued by the Election Commission, or anyone authorized by the ECI.
  • ‘Paid for by’ disclosures: Typically, Google generates a ‘Paid for by’ disclosure which will include the organization or individual who has run the ad. Although Google automatically generates the disclosures, the advertiser is responsible for adding ‘paid for by’ disclosures for ads in these formats:
    • 3rd party ads served on Google Display Network and YouTube
    • Audio Creatives on Display & Video 360
    • Video creatives on Display & Video 360 (except for creatives served on YouTube)
  • Google said that it would make electoral information from the Election Commission and other “authoritative sources” easily discoverable on Google Search

(Update: Google said that the ads will not run if the disclosures are incomplete.)

Google, Facebook ad archives in the US and EU

In November, Google said that it would increase political ad transparency via disclosures and also mandated the verification of political advertisers during the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, reported Verge. Both Google and Facebook introduced the ad archives before the US mid-term elections.

Facebook’s ad library in India

Last week Facebook said that it would launch its own political ad library which will contain contact information of the ad buyers and their official regulatory certificates, which have to match their government-issued documents.

The political ad archive was introduced in the US last year: all political ads have “paid for by” labels, which leads to the searchable archive, which notably is not backdated. The archive displays an ad’s budget, the number of people who saw it, and anonymized data on age, gender and location of the viewers.

Its worth noting that even when an ad buyer is disclosed on Facebook’s library, the advertiser can still be a shell company or cover organization for the actual buyer, per Quartz.

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