Three reasons there needs to be a crackdown on the ‘online wild west’

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 23rd March 2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has rightly shocked people all over the world.

The possibility that our personal information may have been ‘harvested’ for political gain, entirely without our knowledge, has made us fearful.

As is often the case with fear, much of it is because of the unknown: we simply don’t know what information was obtained and exactly how it was used.

We shouldn’t have to live in fear of our personal information being misused – whether for political or financial gain.

That is why the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is urging regulators to set out what powers and resources they need to govern the ‘online wild west’.

Here are three key reasons why an urgent review is needed.

  1. The existing legislation is dangerously outdated.

The main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000.

This was the year Sony released its Playstation 2 (which did not yet have online capacity.) It would be a further 12 months before the first iPod was released. And it would be a further three years before the first Blue Ray hit the shelves.

From a social network perspective, Facebook was not available to the public until 2006, and nor was Twitter.

So the technological and digital landscape was dramatically different. The legislation has not moved with it – and we’re now playing catch-up.

  1. We have a right to know what happens to our personal information.

When we sign-up to a new social network, we can decide how much personal information to provide and who can view this data.

And when we download a new app on our phone we are told which other applications it requires access to.

But what has been uncovered are examples of where our personal data is being harvested in an underhand manner, without our knowledge – and passed from hand to hand.

One quiz was designed to take information on not only the person answering the questions but also their friends.

The scale of it is dramatic. It is said 270,000 took part in the quiz which allowed for the capture of data relating to 50 million users.

This largely related to the US and it isn’t clear if or how the data was used. But that this could be achieved, without the users’ knowledge, is hugely concerning.

  1. To restore faith in our politics.

There is of course a hugely political element to the scandal. It is alleged that the harvested data was used to assist the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Investigations will need to run their course as regards that specific example – but many will be unhappy that their personal information may have been used to help controversial campaigns without their consent.

Democracy depends on people expressing their independent will. It is why when you go to the polling station you can only cast your own vote, not that of your friends and family.

It is why there are strict rules around postal and proxy voting which seek to prevent coercion playing any part.

And it is why there are rules on campaign spending which seek to create something near to a level playing field.

The threat to democracy in the online sphere again comes from the lack of regulation and transparency. It is gap which must be plugged if we are to trust the results of future elections.

Furthermore, when power is concentrated in too few hands it can be used to subvert our democracy. Unregulated activity online can mean overbearing control for a small number of organisations which itself poses a significant threat.

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