Today’s Queen’s Speech reiterated government plans for changes to our election laws.
Reforms to laws on digital political campaigning are vital and long overdue. Unlike offline campaigns, where many people experience the same advertising, online campaigns increasingly target ads at small, specific groups of people, with multiple versions tested rapidly to see which works best. In a democracy, an election must be a shared experience.
Without detailed information on which groups these adverts are targeted at and who they reach, along with details on cost and who paid for them, the public will be left in the dark. Meanwhile, organisations like ours will be unable to effectively scrutinise the campaigns and hold them to account.
Today’s speech restated the government’s plans to implement the so-called imprint regime - where adverts must say who paid for them - for online material, with technical proposals due “in the coming months”.
The Cabinet Office first promised such changes in May, but the government has yet to take action. And with a general election expected imminently, there remains a risk that such proposals - and subsequent reforms - will not be implemented in time to ensure that vote is properly protected.
We want to see technical proposals that, at a minimum, includes measures to ensure transparency of online campaigning and advertising, and a protocol for warning the public when major interference is detected. Without reform, any election called will not be properly protected or open to full scrutiny from journalists, academics and organisations like Full Fact.
Many other organisations, including the DCMS Select Committee, are calling for emergency legislation ahead of any snap election.
The Queen’s Speech also set out plans for ministers to “continue to develop proposals to improve internet safety”, with further details committing the government to publish draft legislation, based on the measures set out in the Online Harms White Paper, for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Full Fact agrees that the time for action is now. It is essential that these decisions are taken through open democratic transparent processes, not by internet companies alone. We urge the government to proceed with caution. It must continue to address the risks associated with interference in free speech.
In particular, Full Fact remains concerned that the Online Harms White Paper proposes too broad a role for the regulator, placing on it excessively strong and unrealistic expectations. We have called for a greater role for parliamentary scrutiny, and parliamentarians should expect to legislate regularly in this area.
Our full response to that consultation is available for download. In it, we call for:
- A proportionate approach that takes account of how much is known about the scale and spread of misinformation and the harms it causes
- A publicly accessible database of political adverts, updated in real-time, with details on each ad’s content, cost, target audience, who it reached and how many versions were available
- Internet companies to provide more data to fact checkers and academics
- Realism about the abilities of technology to identify misinformation and greater transparency when algorithmic approaches are used
- A commitment that the government will consider and mitigate the risks involved with proposals to intervene against disinformation in non-public channels
- Greater support for research into dis- and misinformation, particularly across disciplines
- Clarity on how the government intends to involve the public in process, which is crucial to ensure trust and accountability in the system
- Support for online media literacy programmes and efforts to provide people with the tools and skills to spot and challenge misinformation when they see it
We welcome the opportunity to engage with the government further on this topic.