A new Office for Responsible Technology

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Posted on the 19th February 2019

Jacob Ohrvik-Stott, Researcher for Doteveryone, an independent think tank championing responsible technology for a fairer future, contributed this piece for our report Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century

The world is changing fast and our regulations cannot keep pace. Technologies transform at speed but legislation lags behind. This revolution is happening in every part of what is now a digital-first society. But there are few areas that expose the gap between digital practices and analogue rules as glaringly as digital political campaigning. And there are few areas where the effects of regulation’s failure to adapt are more acutely felt.

In November 2018, Doteveryone published recommendations for a new Office for Responsible Technology to tackle these challenges. The Office would sit across the regulatory landscape, empowering existing and future regulators, informing the public and policymakers about online benefits and harms, and supporting people to seek redress when their digital rights have been breached.

Digital political campaigning is in urgent need of this kind of reform, but regulation in this area has not even remained in-step with that of the offline world, let alone been updated to reflect the realities of today’s digital technologies.

As online political campaigning practices continue to evolve, one-off changes to legislation and regulators’ powers are likely to become obsolete by the time they have reached the statute book. Deep-rooted, systemic change is needed to make the regulatory ecosystem more agile, resilient and intelligent in the long-term. An Office for Responsible Technology could lead this much-needed change, bringing regulation of political campaigning into the digital age.

Empowering regulators and informing the public

In the UK, the work of the Electoral Commission (EC), Ofcom, Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) and Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) all overlap with various aspects of the digital political campaigning landscape. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, many parts of this landscape sit in the grey areas between regulators with too little scrutiny. An Office for Responsible Technology could close these gaps in regulation by leading an independent review, making recommendations to government on how to bring regulations up to date, who should enforce them, and the changes to resources and capabilities needed to deliver them.

It may, for example, recommend that the Political Parties and Elections Act (PPERA) 2000 is amended to give the EC the flexibility to apply its offline powers online, including mandatory imprinting of online political advertising, reporting of online campaign spending, and setting minimum group sizes for targeted online advertising. It could also call for the ICO, ASA and the EC to develop a joint code of practice for online political advertisers, or place a statutory obligation on social media companies to report the number of fake accounts spreading political messages and to set up ‘open APIs’ for third parties to scrutinise political advertising data.

But the Office will not just play catch up with current practice. It would work with regulators to anticipate future developments in the landscape, leading horizon scanning and training regulators to develop their own capacity to plan for the future. Enabling regulators to get ahead of emerging challenges, such as fabricated political ‘deep-fake’ videos and the next generation of behavioural profiling practices, is vital to ensure they are not perpetually left in the wake of fast-moving digital technologies.

The knowledge the Office holds will not be shared with policymakers alone, and it must also be used to empower the public to understand how digital campaigning affects them individually and as a society. In addition to communicating risks and harms, their engagement will also raise awareness of how people can have more control over their interactions with online political campaigns – where to go to report suspicious campaigning activity, check the veracity of evidence used, or how to change the data they share with political campaigners.

Supporting people to find redress

Engaging the public with contemporary issues around digital political campaigning is vital. But raising individual’s awareness of their rights is of little use if they are not able to hold bad actors to account when they have been breached.

Another role of an Office for Responsible Technology is to raise standards for complaint resolution, mediation and redress. As a first step, the Office could audit measures developed by digital services and platforms to maintain the integrity of digital political campaigning. This auditing is needed to shine a light on lax approaches and uncover loopholes in these measures.

Criticisms of Facebook’s political ad transparency tools (described by US lawmakers as “failing to carry out the basic disclosure and disclaimer provisions of the [Honest Ads Act]”) show why this spot-checking function is much needed. Where these measures are not up to scratch the Office would explore ways to enable backstop mediation and redress, making recommendations to government and regulators on how to make them a reality. This ‘Ombudsman-style function’, delivered by a new body or through the reconfiguration of existing ones such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, could be used to mediate between platforms and people and organisations who believe their campaigning content has been unfairly taken down.

The gap between regulation and the realities of ubiquitous digital campaigning practices cannot be ignored. The current failure to hold political campaigners to account risks undermining public faith in democracy. To bring political campaigning regulation into the digital age we need to fundamentally rethink the role of the regulator. An Office for Responsible Technology can lead this transformation and steward the system to uphold the public good in a digital age.

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