Call for urgent review of campaign law in wake of Cambridge Analytica scandal

By agency reporter
March 23, 2018

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has written to party leaders calling for cross-party talks on how campaign regulations can be updated in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

The campaigners are also urging the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner to set out what powers and resources they need to monitor the online campaigning landscape, which the ERS describe as a ‘wild west’.

The main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (public in 2006) or Twitter (2006) even existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns.

The campaigners note that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – the main act covering election law – was written in a time of ‘mini-discs and the millennium bug, with today’s online minefield far from sight’.

The ERS argue both social media giants and politicians have been ‘asleep at the wheel’ while companies harvest citizens’ personal information for political and financial ends.

The democracy group notes that, “If it can’t be seen, it can’t be regulated – so we must be able to see what is being done with our data,” with this forming a key plank of any review.

Regulators may need to be given more powers and resources, and citizens more rights to see what is being done with their data in real time, according to the ERS.

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society, said, “Online campaigning is the 21st century’s wild west – and the Cambridge Analytica saga is a very stark reminder that we have to assess how to govern the new terrain.

“That’s why we have written to party leaders today, and are urging regulators to set out what powers and resources they need in this fraught landscape.

“The rules on campaigning simply haven’t caught up with the digital age. Parties and campaigns are able to collect huge quantities of personal information with little oversight.

“Our main act covering election law was written in a time of mini-discs and the millennium bug, with today’s online minefield far from sight. Clearly it is time for an urgent review of this legislation to bring it up to date.

“Information can change how people think and behave and is often the basis on which people vote: if you can control information and know in detail how it affects people’s behaviour, you can influence our democracy.

“So we must make sure the regulators can do their jobs properly, to monitor what is going on, and that citizens can see what campaigners are doing with their data.

“Data harvesting and campaign targeting is not new – but the difference now is that it can be done much more extensively and stealthily than in the past.

“We know what newspapers print, we can all see the billboards parties put up around us. It is harder to know who is being targeted online, how they are being targeted, and who is behind it.

“This has obvious implications for the regulation of campaign spending, particularly for spending limits – including differentiating between local and national spend.

“If it can’t be seen, it can’t be regulated – so we must be able to see what is being done with our data.

“In the instance of Cambridge Analytica, it appears that this went beyond usual practice – and there are clearly some very big questions to answer.

“Both social media giants and our politicians look like they’ve been asleep at the wheel while unscrupulous agencies harvest our most personal information for political and financial ends.

 “We are witnessing a massive concentration of power beyond even the normal huge inequalities in our democracy. We need to bring our regulations as well as transparency and scrutiny into the 21st century.

“It’s now time for a root-and-branch review of campaigning rules and enforcement.

“How to do that will need to come from civil society, the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission – and it might also require new powers and resources for over-stretched watchdogs.

“These investigations must continue. But alongside that, it is clear we need a serious review of how we run – and monitor – online campaigns in the years ahead. This is too important to ignore.”

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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