Has the DSA done anything for political ad transparency?

Meta and Google have made some updates to their ad libraries in response to the demands of the new EU Digital Services Act.

For Meta’s, it means you can see (and access via their API), with greater accuracy than before, the geographical, gender and age targeting of ads, as well as the exact breakdown of how many people in various groups the ads reached. But you still can’t see the individual targeting for an ad (i.e. the interests, custom/lookalike audiences). That’s only shown at the page level, where the overall methods the advertiser used recently are aggregated.

The Meta Ad Library with new "European Union transparency" content block.
The Meta Ad Library with new “European Union transparency” content block.

This new data is only available in the EU, so the UK and US won’t get it (at least for now, or until they pass some laws of their own).

Is it particularly helpful? Well, you now know that an ad reached 2,356 people, rather than 2-3k. And those 2,356 people are broken down by age ranges and genders in an accurate way. You know that 301 men between 34-45 saw an ad. From this, it could be possible to extrapolate something about targeting intent by looking at the demographics of areas and comparing them to the way ads are delivered, but it’s not likely to be very easy.

The other new API feature seems to be the ability to access the content of ads that violated Meta’s policies. This wasn’t previously available, so it should be a nice project for someone to try and look at at those in bulk.

Overall though, it feels like another missed opportunity to get it “right”. There’s no information about how the ads are optimised/delivered (e.g. for reach or for engagement), and without the full picture about how an ad is targeted, or more transparency around Custom and Lookalike Audiences, that aspect still comes up short.

As for Google, who have a more restricted approach to political ad targeting (just gender, age and location are allowed), they now explicitly show which groups were excluded. Previously this was implicit, but very easy to work out, so there’s no big gain here.

Google's updated ad library, showing the criteria that were "excluded" by the advertiser
Google’s updated ad library, showing the criteria that were “excluded” by the advertiser

As a result, none of the new data so far seems massively useful for holding advertisers or the platforms to account. It’s not necessarily that the platforms side-stepped or subverted what the law intended. It’s just that the DSA hasn’t asked them to do anything very useful. Of course the DSA applies to more actors than just Meta and Google, and the law means that a basic standard of ad transparency is now required across all large platforms. It’s just that this could – and should – have taken the opportunity to go further.