DCMS Committee criticises recent Online White Paper for its ‘scant focus’ on online election interference
Ministers have been urged to introduce legislation to tackle online interference in elections within the next six months following a “disappointing” response to MPs’ recommendations.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee said electoral law must be updated “as a matter of urgency” as they criticised the government for failing to follow its proposals from a report into disinformation and fake news.
The group urged ministers to tighten the rules around digital spending on campaigns, to log all online political advertising material in a public repository and to confront the risks of malign influence from foreign investment in elections, such as by digital payments.
The group said there was “scant focus” in ministers’ Online Harms White Paper from April on electoral interference and online political advertising, despite them being flagged as key areas to be addressed. They add that it ignored calls from their February report for analysis on the role of foreign players targeting voters and whether the law as it stood protected the electoral process.
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It also failed to acknowledge the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups that influence elections and referendums, they add.
Elsewhere the committee welcomed the creation of an independent regulator for online harms and the move to force social media companies to follow a “duty of care”. But the MPs demanded that they be given a statutory veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chief executive of the new regulator.
Chair of the DCMS Committee, Damian Collins, who wrote to Cabinet Office minister David Lidington to lay out the committee’s concerns, said: “We’re calling on the government to bring in urgent legislation before the end of the year to protect our democracy against online electoral interference. We know that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. Political campaigns are fought online, not through the letterbox and our laws need to be brought up to date with the digital age. We’ve repeatedly highlighted threats to our electoral system and it’s essential that public confidence is restored.”
The committee will take further evidence on new legislation later this month and has given ministers until 24 July to respond. It will also look at how anti-money laundering regulations could be improved so that political parties are responsible for their financing practices at a time when digital payment is growing.
The MPs say they are “concerned” that a political party could contest an election without satisfying the Electoral Commission that it had robust procedures in place to comply with electoral law.
A government spokesperson said: “The government agrees we need robust safeguards against hostile states, foreign lobbyists and shadowy third parties in place for the digital age. We have already pledged to publish a consultation paper on electoral integrity – it is an important convention that the laws affecting political parties should not be changed by governments without proper consultation and discussions with political parties. Through our world-leading white paper, we are bringing in new laws and a duty of care on online platforms to protect users from harm, tackle disinformation and empower people to make informed decisions about online content.”