Response: Online Harms White Paper

Our response to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 1 July 2019

Summary

Campaigning is an essential part of well-run elections and referendums because it enables political parties and campaigners to communicate with voters. We also need transparency and other safeguards to maintain trust and participation in our democratic processes.

The Electoral Commission’s role includes making sure campaigners follow the UK’s laws on election spending, funding and declaring who is running a campaign. We would welcome early discussions with the UK Government and the online harms regulator. The proposals to make social media companies provide transparency about political advertising will be more effective if they are well joined-up with election and referendum law. If designed well, these proposals could: 

  • support our aims for transparency and controls on election spending, 
  • assist political parties and other campaigners to comply with their responsibilities to follow election law and
  • help voters to have greater trust that they know who is campaigning for their vote. 

It is essential that any UK regulator working in the digital sphere has the right enforcement tools to deal with activity online. We urge the Government to take steps to modernise electoral law and our powers at the same time as tackling online harms. We need the power to obtain information from social media companies and want better abilities to share information with other regulators. We are pleased that the White Paper confirms our 2018 policy report into Digital Campaigning is being considered as part of the online harms agenda and we look forward to seeing the UK Government’s response to our recommendations.

Introduction

Introduction

Electoral Commission is the independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK. We work to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity. This includes using our expertise to make and advocate for changes to our democracy, aiming to improve fairness and transparency.

This response comments on the consultation questions most relevant to our statutory responsibilities. It also sets out our views on the White Paper’s proposals for increasing transparency of political advertising.

Responses to specific consultation questions

Increasing transparency of political advertising and supporting electoral law

This part of our response explains why we have a close interest in the White Paper’s proposals that social media and technology companies should be required to improve transparency of political advertising. 

If these proposals are implemented as described, it will mean that UK law, which currently provides for regulation of campaign spending by political parties and other campaigners, will also extend to the online providers of the tools they use for advertising and communicating with the public. It will also mean that the overarching aim of transparency of election spending will be delivered by two regulatory regimes – one for parties and other campaigners and one for social media companies. It is essential that these two regulatory regimes dovetail together, and this aim should be carefully considered when designing the online harms regulator and the proposed Codes of Practice. 

The UK presently has electoral and political finance laws that provide the ‘rules of the game’ that underpin fairness, trust and confidence in our democratic processes. These laws aim to ensure the UK’s election processes and results are trusted and accepted as legitimate and that funding and spending at elections and referendums is transparent. They level the campaign playing field to ensure elections are not unduly influenced. 

But there are obvious gaps when it comes to digital campaigning. It should assist if the new online harms regulator addresses some of these gaps by placing new requirements on social media companies. Other gaps need to be tackled by making direct improvements to electoral law. We recently welcomed the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into electoral law and highlighted the need for reforms. For example, voters should be able to see clearly who is spending money online to influence them at elections and referendums and changes should also be made to strengthen our powers to compel social media companies to disclose information. The online harms agenda and electoral reform are complementary and should come hand in hand to maintain voters’ trust and protect elections from undue interference.

Increasing transparency of political advertising and supporting electoral law

Last updated: 5 November 2019
Next review: 24 October 2020