The draft Online Safety Bill: abandoning democracy to disinformation

The draft Online Safety Bill published in May is the first significant attempt to safeguard the public from online harms through legislation. However, as Alex Walker explains, the government’s current proposals are a missed opportunity to address online harms to democracy and could even make tackling disinformation more difficult.

In May, the government published its draft Online Safety Bill, which is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of both Houses. It is also the subject of an inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation. Published two years after the Online Harms white paper, the draft bill represents the first major attempt in this country to regulate the online environment and the major companies that dominate it. Given the significance of the bill, the parliamentary attention it is currently receiving is welcome. Nevertheless, as much of the evidence given to parliament points out, the draft bill has significant weaknesses. In September, Constitution Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick and I submitted evidence to the DCMS Sub-committee inquiry. We highlighted the draft bill’s failure to address online harms to democracy. There is a danger that in its present form the bill will make it more difficult to tackle disinformation that damages and undermines democracy.

Abandoning the field: from the Online Harms white paper to the draft Online Safety Bill

As previously documented, in the course of the development of the online safety regime measures to strengthen democracy in the face of new challenges posed by digital technology have been dropped from the proposals. The Online Harms white paper, published in April 2019, was explicit that various types of online activity could harm democracy. It referenced concerted disinformation campaigns, deepfakes, and micro-targeting. The white paper set out a number of actions that it was expected would be in the regulator’s Code of Practice. They included: using fact-checking services, especially during election campaigns; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who mispresent their identity to spread disinformation.

In many areas, the white paper’s position chimed with the findings of a major inquiry into disinformation conducted by the DCMS select committee over the previous eighteen months.

But the publication of the draft Online Safety Bill in May confirmed that the government has opted for a much more limited approach. Only disinformation that could have a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an individual is now in scope. In choosing this approach, the government ignored the recommendations of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, which proposed that certain service providers should have a duty of care towards democracy.

The emphasis has shifted decisively away from acknowledging that online platforms have a responsibility for the impact their technology has on democracy, towards a completely unregulated approach to political content, regardless of the broader democratic consequences.

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Updating campaign regulation for the digital era

John Pullinger, chair of the Electoral Commission, argues digital campaign regulations need  an ‘overhaul’ to make the electoral process more transparent and accessible to voters, thereby increasing confidence in the system in a manner that doesn’t discourage parties, candidates and campaigners to take in part in elections. He also calls on the UK’s parliaments to show that they do not tolerate the use of online activities that undermine democracy.

Digital channels are transforming our democracy. Action now can harness that transformation to make political campaigns better. Without the right action, our democracy may not be resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the digital era. But there is nothing unique to elections in this. It applies in the same way to how technological change is affecting so many aspects of our lives. And we can respond in the same way.

Voters can already be sceptical about what they see on social media and practise the art of asking. Who is telling me this? Can I be sure it is really from them? Why are they telling me this? Can I believe what they are saying? How can I check it out? Parties, candidates and campaigners can already use digital tools like imprints to show where information is coming from.

Other voices can already accentuate the positive and shame the bad. Social media platforms, news organisations, influencers and fact checkers increasingly see this as central to their own reputation. A platform is not neutral. It has values and shows its true colours by how it acts. By standing on the sidelines, they are getting the message that they will be seen to be complicit in undermining democracy. By standing tall they can see that they can provide a vital public service that will enhance their brand.

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Constitutional reformers need to tackle six key questions about the regulation of digital campaigning

Today marks the second day of the Unit’s conference on the Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda, for which free tickets remain available. One of today’s speakers, Kate Dommett, argues that the government’s proposals to tackle the challenges posed by digital campaigning are far from comprehensive, leaving many unanswered questions for future governments to address.

Five years on from the Brexit referendum and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that emerged in its wake, the government is poised to publish its Electoral Integrity Bill. Proposing ‘significant changes to the electoral and democratic system’, it could be presumed that Boris Johnson’s government is about to enact an ambitious programme of constitutional change that will update electoral systems to the digital age. Yet, from the details available so far – including a new announcement this week – it seems Johnson’s government is failing to address six critical questions about digital campaigning, leaving considerable room for further reform.

The rise of digital technology in campaigning

The rise of digital campaigning has been a slow and steady phenomenon in UK elections, but in recent years there has been significant attention paid to the need for electoral reform. The current regulation governing electoral campaigning can be found in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (PPERA) that was passed in 2000. Since then the adoption of websites, social media profiles and, more recently, online advertising by electoral campaigners has raised questions about the suitability of existing legislation. Indeed, a range of parliamentary committees, civil society bodies, academics and even digital companies such as Facebook, have asserted a need for urgent digital campaigning regulation.

Publishing a report devoted to digital campaigning in 2018, the Electoral Commission has been at the forefront of these debates. Its analysis revealed the rapid rise of digital tools in elections, showing increasing amounts are being spent on digital advertising. Updating its statistics to include the last election, Figure 1 (below) shows that spending on digital advertising has increased to around £7.5 million, and now represents a significant proportion of election campaign spend.

Figure 1: Electoral Commission spending return declarations related to advertising and digital advertising 2014-2019
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Responding to the challenges of digital democracy during Ireland’s abortion referendum

com.google.Chrome.eocx2f (1)On 25 May, Ireland voted by a two-to-one margin to allow its parliament (the Oireachtas) to change the constitution in a way that would legalise abortion. In this post, Liz Carolan discusses the role of digital media in the referendum campaign, the challenges it poses for democracy, and potential solutions to the problems she observed.

Background

When it was announced that there was to be a referendum on abortion in Ireland, not many people anticipated a landslide; I certainly did not. I had spent the previous five months trying to monitor the financial and information flows behind digital political advertising, witnessing attempts at overseas interference, disinformation campaigns, and unregistered spending. With a tight result predicted by both polls and campaigns, I thought it was naive to think that the digital campaign would not be a deciding factor.

The Irish vote had real and concrete implications at home, but there were international stakes as well. Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion was held up by activists in the US and elsewhere as an example to be emulated. Pro-choice advocates globally were watching too, as Ireland’s vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015 had emboldened equal marriage activists around the world.

So long before polling day, threats to the proper functioning of the referendum were evident to those of us spending time thinking about technology and democracy. The first threat was that overseas or untraceable financing would be used to try to influence the vote. The second was that deliberate disinformation campaigns could spread untruths, disparage campaigners, and polarise or isolate voters. The last was that a large amount of campaign spending could happen under the radar.

Digital advertisements are particularly interesting because they bring together money, information, and the algorithms that determine who sees what, and importantly who doesn’t. They are often only seen by those targeted with them and they are ephemeral, with the ability to appear and vanish without leaving a trace. They had been an avenue for the alleged overseas interference and deliberate disinformation campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.

The work of the Transparent Referendum Initiative

Looking at the ongoing investigations into these cases, it appeared that investigators and legislators alike were having challenges even knowing what had happening online during the voting period. So in February some colleagues and I launched the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). We decided to build a database of as many ads as we could, to make it available to as many people as possible, in as close to real-time as possible. We did this so the ads could be exposed to scrutiny, fact-checking, and source-tracing, so that any media or regulatory response could be swift and contemporaneous, rather than retrospective. Continue reading