Last week, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee published its response to the government’s Online Harms White Paper, where it called for urgent legislation to safeguard future elections. Echoing the ERS’s calls, the committee noted that ‘[w]ere an election or referendum to take place later this year, campaigns would be fought using electoral law that is wholly inadequate for the digital age.’
The government’s long-awaited white paper on online harms was published in April 2019 and offered a package of measures to tackle online harms (e.g. cyberbullying and disinformation) and to regulate internet companies who do not adequately protect their users. This would be achieved by establishing a new statutory duty of care towards users, which would make tech companies responsible for users’ safety online and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. Compliance with this duty would be overseen by a new independent regulator. Both the duty of care requirement and the establishment of a regulator were proposals included in the DCMS committee’s Final Report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’.
While it welcomed the (limited) measures proposed to tackle disinformation, in its response the DCMS committee said it was ‘disappointed’ with the ‘scant focus’ the white paper paid to the urgent changes that are needed around electoral interference and online political advertising.
In particular, the committee said that the measures included in the white paper to tackle digital campaigning were limited and did not address the committee’s recommendations on creating a category for digital spending on campaigns (currently parties and campaigners do not need to provide a breakdown of online spend) and a searchable public repository where information on political advertising material would be available.
The committee also lamented the fact that white paper did not acknowledge the risks of foreign investments in elections or the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups in influencing elections and referendums. Regarding the first point, the committee will be taking further evidence this month on how anti-money laundering regulations may be adapted to digital campaigning, particularly given the use of online payment systems such as PayPal.
Despite the government’s commitment to extending imprints (disclosures stating who paid for and promoted campaign material) to online election material, the committee voiced concern about ‘how long it may take in practice for digital imprints to be enshrined in legislation’ given the government’s lack of urgency in addressing the committee’s other proposals.
The committee is therefore calling for ‘urgent legislation’ to be brought forward at once so as to bring electoral law in line with digital campaigning techniques, particularly with regards to digital imprints, and has asked the government to respond by 24 July with a commitment on this.
Most of the calls reiterated by the DCMS committee in their report on the online harms white paper have also been made by the ERS and our contributors in our report on online campaign regulation, Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century, namely:
- Extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending.
- Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable.
- Ensuring that those charged with enforcing the rules have sufficient enforcement powers and resources that act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing.
- Establishing a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners around online campaigning and the use of personal data.
- Comprehensively reviewing our electoral law, ensuring that it is updated and future-proofed for the digital age.
Protecting the integrity of our elections and referendums is vital to ensuring public confidence in our democratic processes, and we welcome the DCMS committee’s calls for updating our outdated campaign rules. We hope the government will tackle this unregulated online Wild West with the urgency it deserves.