Earlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the way in which political campaigning has changed since 2000, when the current legislation regulating referendums was enacted.
The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – was designed and introduced almost two decades ago. Since then, technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. These changes create new challenges for referendums regulation. While most of these challenges are not unique to referendums – they apply equally to elections – one key task of the Independent Commission on Referendums is to assess how well the existing rules work in the context of new digital developments and to consider solutions to some of the problems posed by the modern world. This blog post explores just some of those challenges.
Financial regulation doesn’t reflect the modern world
Increasingly, political campaigners are using social media to communicate with voters. We know this because we can observe political adverts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram during elections and referendum campaigns. However, we have very little information about how much money they are spending to do so. This is because financial regulation of political campaigns, first designed in 2000, has yet to be updated to reflect the nature of campaigning in the modern world.
Registered referendum campaign groups are required to submit returns of referendum expenses. The purpose of these transparency requirements is to allow campaign spending to be scrutinised by both the Electoral Commission and the public. Financial transparency requirements apply equally to expenses incurred for online and for offline campaigning. However, how this is reported makes scrutiny of online spending difficult. There is no separate category for spending on social media: such spending is reported as either ‘advertising’ or ‘unsolicited material sent to voters’. Furthermore, within this category it is only identifiable if spent directly with the platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Spending through agencies remains opaque, with no breakdown of how money is used. In this area, it could be argued that transparency requirements are rendered meaningless.
Non-technologists may have noticed that ‘big data’ is the most recent addition to our ever-expanding lexicon of webtwopointwhateverspeak.
Big data refers to datasets that are beyond the means of ordinary software and processing power to analyse, owing to their sheer scale and complexity. An obvious example is Facebook; the London Data Store is another.
Commercial organisations have been collecting vast amounts of data for years; Anyone that has regularly used Gmail, a supermarket loyalty card, or shopped at Amazon, will have at least an inkling of how an organisation can i) collect data and ii) use it to target them with personalised actions.
What is new, is that in many instances the supply of data that companies and government now collect or access vastly overshadows their own ability to actually process it into useful information. It’s not only computer-processing power that is lacking; a recent report by Deloitte points to a massive shortage in skilled labour. These are however short-term barriers that will be overcome by the larger organisations, either by outsourcing data analysis to countries with a surplus of quant talent, or by simply importing that skilled labour directly.
Traditional critics of data collection have made their arguments on the grounds of individual privacy. However the era of ‘big data’ has other, potentially more sinister implications. Writing recently for The Atlantic, Alexander Furnas of the Oxford Internet Institute believes we have yet to fully appreciate the macro-implications of the information age:
“Rather than caring about what they know about me, we should care about what they know about us. Detailed knowledge of individuals and their behavior coupled with the aggregate data on human behavior now available at unprecedented scale grants incredible power. Knowing about all of us – how we behave, how our behavior has changed over time, under what conditions our behavior is subject to change, and what factors are likely to impact our decision-making under various conditions – provides a roadmap for designing persuasive technologies.”
Taken in conjunction with the popularity of behavioural economics within policy-making circles (consider the UK government’s “Nudge Unit” as a case in point) the potential applications of ‘big data’ for public policy are considerable, and deserve closer scrutiny.
As recently remarked on over at the Bits blog, tech companies like Facebook are increasingly fond of making the “economy versus privacy” argument. It goes something like this: Because they create jobs and generate growth in an otherwise bleak landscape of rising unemployment and negative growth, it would be foolish to burden innovative technology firms with privacy laws that could jeopardise these rare economic boons. Facebook has commissioned a study to this end, suggesting the company brings £2.2 billion to UK PLC and supports a further 35,200 jobs in sectors that are dependent on the popular social networking site. Their CEO Sheryl Sandberg recently commented “we want to make sure we have the right regulatory environment — a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and economic growth.” Mark Zuckerberg has in the past also not shied away from expressing his belief that privacy is no longer a social norm.
Today, the European Commission formally proposed amendments to the 1995 Protection of Personal Data Directive. These proposals include a “right to be forgotten” clause, allowing people to delete their personal information from a website if there is no legitimate basis for the company to retain it. Facebook claims however that far from wanting to delete their personal data, most Facebook users prefer having their details retained indefinitely. According to Richard Allan, Facebook’s Director of European Policy, “they want us to give them a guarantee that data will remain available in ten or 15 years’ time so they have a record of how things changed over time.” The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also appears sceptical of an ‘rtbf’ clause, fearing that it could “mislead individuals and falsely raise their expectations, and be impossible to implement and enforce in practice.”
Sandberg, Zuckerberg and Allan frame the privacy debate as progress and economic prosperity versus anachronism and bureaucracy. As these amendments are debated over the coming months, we will get some measure of exactly just how anachronistic privacy really is to Europeans.