STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union proposed fining groups that misuse voters' data to sway elections on Wednesday, as it seeks to guard against a repeat of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, especially in an EU parliament vote next May.
EU regulators have sought more powers to protect against privacy breaches since the data of millions of EU citizens were among those used by the British political consultancy to build profiles on voters and influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The proposal comes amid concerns that anti-EU parties or malign foreign actors will target the election to the EU legislature next year.
"We must protect our free and fair elections," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a keynote address to the European Parliament. He called for "new rules to better protect our democratic processes from manipulation by third countries or private interests".
The measure specifically targets political parties and political foundations with the threat of a fine of up to 5 per cent of their annual budget if they are found in breach of data protection rules with the aim of influencing a ballot.
To guard against disinformation campaigns, the Commission will also ask national governments to make online political advertising subject to stricter transparency rules.
The draft plan still needs the approval of national governments and European Parliament to become law.
While voter targeting is not illegal, the proposed measures are in line with the EU's push to ensure that personal data is not used without consent.
The bloc adopted new privacy regulations that are among the world's toughest, requiring firms to be more cautious on how they handle customer data or face fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue or 20 million euros ($23.2 million).
The Commission has also proposed separate measures threatening fines against Google, Facebook, Twitter and other internet companies if they fail to remove extremist content within one hour.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald)