APPG Fifth Session Features Electoral Commission and ICO members

July 16, 2019

On Tuesday, the 16th of July, the fifth APPG session continued the ongoing discussion of money and data in politics. The dialogue featured voices from members of the electoral commission and the information commissioner’s office. Although it was a similar discussion to that of Monday the 15th, there were some different perspectives around the room. One area of agreement was a desire to see the electoral commission gain more teeth in their ability to enforce and regulations and de-incentivize infractions. Highlights and full audio are posted below.

Craig Westwood of the Electoral Commission maintained that digital campaigning is most often a positive thing. Digital tools provide great ways to reach audiences and engage bilaterally. However, he went on to say that “there are a huge range of things that need to be changed to make sure that our democratic processes of elections are fit for purpose.” Agreeing with others from previous sessions such as Sam Power, he advocated for more detail in spend and return categories in campaign finance regulations. As far as Craig is concerned, the Electoral Commission is first and foremost a “financial regulator.” He therefore also agreed that strengthening the Electoral Commission’s fining and auditing powers would be a good step towards solving problems with money in politics and data misuse. He also initiated a discussion on the split between the candidate and national systems in election campaigns, and how the former is enforced by law enforcement and the latter is enforced by the Electoral Commission. He think that wrapping these together in one category could facilitate enforcement against violations.

Tom Hawthorne of the Electoral Commission discussed his desire to see more progress in registering third party actors and in targeting data. He argued that the electoral commission has improved in recent years in seeking out organizations that qualify as political actors and spend enough money to influence the public. He also wants the electoral commission to work with social media companies in tackling data misuse until ultimately a new online regulator can be created to more effectively mitigate the spread of false information. Tom and Craig agreed that there is a need to reform the fining ceiling the electoral commission can enforce (20,000£). They both felt confident that being able to fine more money would de-incentivize infractions.

Steve Wood of the ICO discussed the ICO’s investigation of how data is used in the democratic process. He maintained that the ICO has confidence in fundamental rights relating to data protection and privacy, but also freedom of speech. He is concerned that the public is unaware of “invisible processing,” which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and is always happening behind the scenes. This refers mainly to micro-targeted data analysis. We are living in what Steve calls a “Political Data Ecosystem,” in which all actors sharing data leads to greater incidence of micro-targeting of voters and/or customers. He discussed the steps the ICO has already taken to enforce regulations on giant social media companies but admits that keeping up with the technology is a challenge for the institution. Because of this, they need to take a horizontal approach rather than a vertical one. That is, they need to look at the whole field of information technology rather than focusing entirely on one infractor. Despite his concerns about micro-targeting, Steve does not support an outright ban of it. He, along with Craig and Tom seemed to agree that some degree of targeting is necessary and inevitable, but the question is simply where to draw the line.

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