IPA agrees: ‘electoral laws not fit for purpose’

IPA Director of Media Affairs Nigel Gwilliam backs the DCMS Select Committee's response to the Government

The IPA has today backed the DCMS Select Committee response to Government in which it has labelled electoral laws as unfit for purpose and calls for more immediate action ‘to protect our democracy against online electoral interference.’

As reported in the press, the select committee has issued its plea in a report as a response to the consultation on the government's online harms whitepaper - which closed on Monday. The committee said the paper "has scant focus on electoral interference and online political advertising" or analysis about foreign players targeting voters, despite its recommendations.

Such comments support those made by the Advertising Association and IPA in its cross-industry response to the whitepaper, and strongly echo those made by the IPA in its additional response to a concurrent review of online targeting by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI).

Within its CDEI response, the IPA states that while strides are being taken by the ICO to work with the Electoral Commission, law enforcement and other regulators in the UK to increase transparency in election campaign techniques, there remains no specific regulation with regard to political advertising messages nor limits to micro-targeting thresholds.

While it acknowledges that individual internal platforms have made some attempt to provide political campaign transparency, in the absence in the foreseeable future of political advertising message regulation, it reiterates the pressing need for message transparency via a platform-neutral, real-time, machine-readable register of all political advertising messages with full details of content, targeting and spend. And agrees with the DCMS Select Committee Enquiry into Disinformation final recommendation that such a searchable repository should be run by an independent body.

Coupled with this, the IPA reiterates its call for minimum thresholds to online political targeting which should be funded by all online platforms who would be charged a fixed fee for each individual political ad-creative used, irrespective of the scale of deployment.

Says Nigel Gwilliam, Director of Media Affairs, IPA:

“We would argue online enclaves and niches relating to products, services and cultural groups (imagine classic car owners, airline executive club members, fans of a particular football club or pop band) pose little threat to individuals, organisations or to society. Within the bounds of the law, online targeting in these spaces is largely innocuous. The contrast with regard to political online targeting and the potential for its abuse could not be starker.

“True democracies rely on the public sphere – where open, honest and collective debate can flourish. We strongly believe that micro-targeted political ads circumvent this open debate because very small numbers of voters can be targeted with specific messages that not only exist online briefly, but which can be tailored specifically to that individual’s particular biases and beliefs for maximum effect.

“And critically, political advertising, unlike every other category, is not covered by the CAP Code under the self-regulatory system, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). There is no governance. We therefore believe that the absence of governance allows this growing, opaque and unaccountable form of political communication to be open to abuse.

“As the DCMS has so rightly asserted, urgent action is required to halt further abuse and undermining of our democratic process.”