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.

Continue reading

The Elections Bill: examining the evidence

The Elections Bill is currently being scrutinised by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has received a large amount of evidence from a wide range of academics and organisations. Ahead of the Unit’s September webinar on the bill, Emilia Cieslak offered a summary of the key themes, including the parts of the bill that are welcomed, and the sections that have caused concern.

The Elections Bill currently before parliament aims to tackle a wide range of issues, including fighting electoral fraud, increasing parliamentary supervision of the Electoral Commission, and extending the franchise to more overseas electors and EU citizens. The bill recently received its second reading in the Commons. It is currently going through committee stage and is also being reviewed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). While some provisions have proved popular, many have attracted criticism.

This post reviews the written evidence submissions to PACAC’s inquiry, focusing largely on the most controversial provisions: the introduction of photographic voter ID, changes to parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission, and reform of campaign spending rules. Before addressing those controversial aspects, however, I highlight sections of the bill that are generally welcomed.

Popular provisions

The bill proposes to abolish the current 15-year limit after which overseas electors become ineligible to vote. This has so far met very little opposition, and has strong support from groups representing British citizens living abroad. Several submissions (for example, from the Electoral Commission and Association of Electoral Administrators) do, however, draw attention to practical difficulties. And one submission, from Professor Justin Fisher, argues that the principled case for the change is not straightforward.

Meanwhile, no submissions oppose extending voting and candidacy rights to EU citizens through bilateral arrangements with individual member states. Most welcome changes to provision for voters with disabilities, though some identify what they see as flaws in certain elements of those measures.

The introduction of digital imprints is hailed as an overdue, necessary step to tackling the problem of misleading campaign material online. Most respondents writing on the topic argue that the provision is a good start, but that more is needed. Dr Sam Power comments that the provision should be accompanied by a renewed focus on citizen engagement and digital literacy campaigns. The Electoral Reform Society argues for a requirement that campaigners provide invoices on their digital spending, an open database for all political advertisements, and a code of practice on use of sensitive data. Multiple respondents warned about the rapid development of technology which means the legislation will require post-legislative scrutiny and frequent updates to avoid new loopholes developing.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

Continue reading