The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced a crackdown on the online political advertising industry following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Speaking at a hearing of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Elizabeth Denham, head of the ICO, said that she was “deeply concerned” about the widespread misuse of personal social media data and its negative impact on the democratic system.
Denham also recognised that current regulation is outdated, stating that “some aspects of our legal systems have failed to keep up with the unforeseen pace of the internet.”
In its report due to be published later this month, the ICO will set out the legislative and regulatory reforms needed to respond to the challenges of online targeted advertising.
Among the proposed changes will be the need for social media giants to take greater responsibility for the content hosted on their sites, including the origin of the information provided to users.
The forthcoming report is the culmination of the ICO’s year-long investigation into the use of personal data and analytics for political purposes. Denham described this investigation as “unprecedented in scale”, with 40 full-time investigators working on the inquiry backed up by external legal and forensic digital recovery experts.
The Information Commissioner’s comments and the ICO’s forthcoming report are welcome first steps towards addressing the deficiencies of existing legislation and regulation around political campaigning.
If its proposals are implemented, they will likely enhance transparency around how campaigners collect, analyse and use sensitive personal data to target voters during campaigns.
But more remains to be done beyond regulating the use of personal data.
The main legislation governing parties’ campaigning and spending dates back to 2000. Among other things, this has led to a discrepancy in the regulation that applies to offline and online campaigning, with the former being subject to stricter requirements despite campaigns increasingly being conducted in the digital realm.
Political adverts appearing online, for example, do not need to include an imprint stating who published or paid for the advert.
Further transparency needs to be provided about spending on digital and online campaigns. Currently, out-of-date regulations mean that campaigners can easily circumvent local spending limits by recording digital spend as part of their national campaign.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that, in their spending reports to the Electoral Commission, parties do not need to break down their social media spend into separate categories.
In its post-election reports, the Electoral Commission has frequently recommended that it be granted further investigative and sanctioning powers relating to non-compliance with candidate spending and donations.
Addressing these aspects is essential to restoring trust in politics. Fairness and transparency are key principles of our democratic processes that have been undermined by the shifting nature of online campaigning and lack of an appropriate and timely response.