Call for government to regulate online political advertising

By agency reporter
April 10, 2019

Campaigners have called for the government to set out proposals for dealing with the ‘wild west’ in online political advertising, as a review is launched into social media firms.

On 8 April 2019, the government launched its White Paper into online harm, which proposes new measures to regulate internet companies who do not adequately protect their users.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, confirmed that the government was also looking into online political advertising practices. A consultation closed in October 2018 looking at the issue of ‘online imprints’ – closing the loophole where printed political materials must have publisher information but online ads do not.

Political advertising online is almost completely unregulated, leading regulators, campaigners and academics to launch a united call for a review of Britain’s political campaign laws.

Recent news reports have revealed anonymous groups are pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds into online political ads to steer the Brexit debate – with almost no scrutiny. These so-called ‘dark ads’ pose a ‘real danger’ to our democracy, say the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

Since 2003, the Electoral Commission has been calling for online ‘imprints’ (showing who has paid for and published political materials), yet no government has grasped the nettle and taken the necessary action to update the rules. The ERS argue it cannot be left up to the social media giants to self-regulate.

The rules on political campaigning were last properly updated in 2000 – before social media and online campaigning as we know it even existed.

This month will see the launch of an All Party Parliamentary Group for Campaign Transparency to keep up pressure on the government to act.

Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research and Policy, Electoral Reform Society, said: “While it’s encouraging to see action being taken on online harms across the board, it is now time to act when it comes to tackling threats to our democratic debate. Ministers must now deal with the ‘wild west’ in online political advertising. 

“At present, secretive groups are able to pump millions into campaign ads online with almost no transparency. We hope the government comes forward with proposals following last year’s consultation which aimed to sort out this situation.

“So-called ‘dark ads’ allow for significant meddling in democratic process with no scrutiny. As things stand, our political debate is exposed.

“It is time to protect our democracy. We can’t hand over political debate to social media giants and wealthy, anonymous actors.”

The ERS argues there are six areas the government must act to ‘drag our out-dated election rules into the 21st century’:

  • No more ‘dark ads’: We need to extend the ‘imprint’ requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising. It’s bizarre that physical leaflets have to say who’s promoting them but not online ads.
  • Opening up campaign finance: We need to improve how campaigners report funding and spending, including reporting social media spend separately, reporting spend/donations in a digital format (rather than the archaic system of scanning hand-written files), and reporting spend/donations in real time during a campaign.
  • Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, to increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content. In an age of ‘micro-targeting’ thousands of separate messages to small groups, this is vital for trust and transparency.
  • Giving the regulators greater enforcement powers: strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will. Now the Electoral Commission’s paltry £20,000 maximum fine for rule-breaking should be uncapped.
  • Level playing field: a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners must be established without delay.
  • A comprehensive review and overhaul of electoral law, to make it future-proofed for the digital age.

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

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