Britain moves closer to shutting down ‘dark ads’ – but we need action now

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 12th August 2020

The government has today unveiled new proposals that would require parties and political campaigners to display a digital imprint on online political advertisements. This would bring online ads in line with offline election material, which is already required to display an imprint showing who is behind the election message. A Cabinet Office consultation has been launched seeking further views into how the proposals will work in detail.

The ERS, the Electoral Commission, parliamentary committees, academics and many others have long been calling for the imprint requirement to be extended to online election material – indeed, the Electoral Commission first floated this idea in 2003 – as a way of addressing the ‘wild west’ of online campaigning and restoring trust in our democratic processes. For example, research conducted after the 2019 general election by the Electoral Commission found that ‘nearly three quarters of people agreed that it was important for them to know who produced the political information they see online, but less than a third agreed that they can find out who has produced it.’ In a recent report, the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies committee warned of a ‘pandemic of misinformation’ if steps are not taken to address public trust in information circulating online.

The Cabinet Office’s latest proposals are therefore a welcome recognition of the changing nature of political campaigning and of the vital importance of transparency in restoring trust in our democratic processes.

The government’s proposals would require an imprint on any online ‘election material’ – defined as material whose purpose is ‘to achieve the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates, or the material relates to a referendum’ – and would be displayed on the online ad itself or, if this is not possible, in an alternative location linked to the material.

Imprints would be required for paid for or unpaid/organic online ads that are being promoted by registered political parties, third-party campaigners, and candidates as well as paid digital content. Unregistered campaigners, such as members of the public, who are not paying to promote their content, but merely engaging in democratic debate, would not be required to display an imprint. This is an important distinction which allows for freedom of expression and healthy democratic debate.

The Electoral Commission is expected to be tasked with enforcing the new regime in relation to ads displayed by parties and other campaigners, while the police would enforce ads promoted by candidates, as is the case with existing regulations for offline material.

In line with ERS calls, the government’s proposals would require digital imprints to apply to all political campaign content, regardless of the country from which it is being promoted, and all year round, not just at election time.

The latest proposals are an important first step towards updating our outdated, analogue election rules, and enhancing the transparency of our democratic processes. But much more remains to be done – as we outlined last year in our report on the gaps in Britain’s political campaign rules.

As yet, there is no timeline for introducing the policy – indeed, Damian Collins MP, the former chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, responded to today’s announcement by reiterating his call for legislation to be tabled ‘as soon as possible’. Another consultation risks kicking the issue even further into the long grass, especially considering that the government first committed to introducing digital imprints more than 15 months ago, following a previous consultation.

[bctt tweet=”Another consultation risks kicking digital imprints even further into the long grass, especially considering that the government first committed to introducing them more than 15 months ago.” username=”electoralreform”]

The latest announcement makes no mention of the role of social media companies in enhancing transparency around online political campaigning, such as through real-time databases of all political ads running across online platforms.

Further, if it is to be tasked with enforcing the new regime, the Electoral Commission will require further powers and appropriate sanctions, which should ensure compliance rather than merely being seen as the ‘cost of doing business’.

With elections due to take place throughout the UK in May 2021, voters need to have confidence in our democratic processes – online imprints are one small step towards enhancing transparency and rebuilding trust in our democracy.

Digital imprints are vital - sign our petition for legislation to be tabled as soon as possible

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