Last summer, Open Rights Group gave oral evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaigning Transparency. It was convened by Fair Vote, the Electoral Reform Society and Stephen Kinnock MP. This APPG has been leading the charge to make our electoral laws fit for the digital challenges of the 21st Century. Its final report, ‘Defending Democracy in the Digital Age’, was published earlier this January.
Many APPGs are mere vanity projects for ambitious MPs that can lose momentum and fail to deliver their promised outputs. This is not one of those. The Secretariat and members of the APPG should be congratulated for such a speedy delivery. This speaks to the urgency of the issues at hand.
The laws that regulate how much an election campaign can spend, and the ways that data are used in elections, are increasingly intertwined. Not least, this is because the value of datasets used by a campaign are rarely captured by regulators, although this is nominally already required by regulation. This is partially because all spending reportage happens after the fact, so there is no way to track spending in real time, or assess if the campaigns themselves are being truthful about the size of their campaign assets.
Open Rights Group’s (ORG) Data and Democracy Project made several key recommendations to address this issue, that were adopted in the final report. Here are a selection:
Data sets should be assigned a market based monetary value, which can then be included in spending regulation and sums. Although this is nominally required by existing regulation, a new calculus needs to be applied to work out (and perhaps limit) their changing financial value in specific campaigning contexts.
To facilitate this, the Electoral Commission and the ICO should form a joint task force to conduct ‘data audits’ of a campaign’s data assets, such as data sets, algorithms, and social networks. This should also scope for illegal and unethical behaviour.
The Electoral Commission and the ICO should reserve the right to carry out ‘drug tests’ during elections, to ensure that campaigns are complying with electoral and data protection law.
Although changes to the laws that regulate this activity have never been more needed, frankly that change has never seemed further away. The replacement of the DCMS Select Committee chair, Damian Collins, has come as a shock to many. Collins’ tenure was defined by its fierce scrutiny of the digital campaigning landscape and the actors within it. Many eyes are watching his successor, Julian Knight, who ultimately gets to decide the committee’s direction of travel. There is concern that digital campaigning will now play second fiddle to scrutiny of the BBC.
ORG hopes that the new chair continues his predecessor’s tenacity in regards to electoral reform. In particular, he should start by safeguarding the work of the sub committee on misinformation. We look forward to working with him on these vital issues.