Over the weekend, Buzzfeed reported that Britain’s Future, an obscure pro-Brexit group, spent almost £350,000 on 2,600 Facebook adverts over the course of five months, micro-targeting tens of thousands of voters to get them to lobby their MPs in favour of a no-deal Brexit.
Very little is known about Britain’s Future and who is funding both the organisation itself and the adverts it’s running on social media. Facebook’s new tools offer some transparency around political campaigning – and indeed allowed people to find about Britain’s Future in the first place – but they only go so far in telling us who is behind these adverts.
Even though by Monday, on the eve of the meaningful vote, Britain’s Future had stopped advertising on Facebook, it is still shocking to discover that this unknown organisation was able to exert considerable influence over the biggest political decision in a generation – without having to be registered with the Electoral Commission or having to disclose details on funding and spending, given that these have taken place outside the regulated campaign period. Of course, it is quite possible for organisations on the other side of the debate to act with similar secrecy.
Nor is this to suggest that Britain’s Future has broken any rules – indeed, this is exactly the problem. As shown in our report Reining in the Political Wild West, the rules can be circumvented perfectly legally given the many loopholes available to campaigners in the digital realm. This means that individuals and organisations can funnel money into political and influencing activities with little to no accountability and transparency.
But accountability and transparency are two of our key democratic principles, which ensure that our elections and referendums are free from interference and abuse, and that voters have confidence in and trust our democratic processes.
The contributors to our report offered some recommendations on how to update our campaign rules and to guarantee transparency and accountability in the digital age. Among these, Doteveryone called for the establishment of an Office for Responsible Technology – an independent regulator tasked with 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.
A similar proposal was made last week by the House of Lords Communications Committee. In a report published last Thursday, the Committee lamented the lack of comprehensive and complete oversight of the digital realm, despite the multiplicity of regulators responsible for different aspects of the digital world, and the ‘piecemeal and inadequate’ responses to growing public concern.
The Committee called for a new framework for regulatory action and the creation of a new digital super-regulator – a Digital Authority – which would oversee and coordinate the work of existing regulators, replacing the ‘clearly failing’ system of self-regulation by tech giants.
The Digital Authority would provide oversight of the full spectrum of regulation, recommend legislation where it identified gaps, mediate in the case of overlap among regulators, and report to parliament on the state of regulation of the internet. It would also ‘play a key role in providing the public, the Government and Parliament with the latest information’ so as to ensure they can keep up with the speed of change in the digital world.
The Committee also identified ten principles that should guide all regulation of the internet, including accountability, transparency, respect for privacy, and freedom of expression.
They recognise the increasingly monopolistic character of the online realm, stating that the ‘digital world has become dominated by a small number of very large companies. These companies enjoy a substantial advantage, operating with unprecedented knowledge of users and other businesses. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain more control of technologies which disseminate media content, extract data from the home and individuals or make decisions affecting people’s lives.’
But the Lords Committee held off from proposing that these monopolies should be broken up.
On the other side of the pond, however, Democratic Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren did exactly this, stating: ‘To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies.” Senator Warren’s point was illustrated on Monday, when Facebook temporarily blocked her campaign from running #BreakUpBigTech adverts on the platform.
This proposal has been welcomed by some as a radical solution to the excessive power held by the tech companies. As Robert Reich noted in The Guardian ‘Nearly 90% of all internet searches now go through Google. Facebook and Google together account for 58% of all digital ads, which is where most ad money goes these days.’ For this reason, he argues that – rather than attempting to regulate the industry – a better alternative is to break up the monopolies: ‘That way, information would be distributed through a large number of independent channels without a centralized platform giving all content apparent legitimacy and extraordinary reach. And more startups could flourish.’
However, the issue of over-powerful tech companies and ‘dark ads’ are tackled, calls for regulating online campaigning continue to increase to protect our democracy.
With the government’s white paper on digital media and its response to the consultation on protecting democratic debate due imminently, we hope that calls to rein in the digital Wild West and comprehensively review our election rules are given the urgency they deserve.