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Democracy in Danger: ‘Online Harms’ plan fails to tackle threat posed by ‘Dark Ads’

As Whitehall publishes plans to tackle online abuse, Conservative and Labour big-hitters issue stark warning over UK elections

As Whitehall publishes proposals to tackle online abuse, Conservative and Labour big-hitters issue stark warning over UK elections

Senior politicians are worried that ministers’ “Online Harms” white paper has overlooked concerns about political advertising and campaigning.

The Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DDCMS) today published their long-awaited Online harms white paper, which proposes establishing a regulator empowered to levy hefty fines on Internet-based companies which fail to adequately safeguard children or national security.

Ministers have proposed a statutory “duty of care” forcing companies to become more responsible for online safety. Any future failure to safeguard online users could lead either to heavy fines or action against senior managers representing companies online.

The white paper does not address… the need for transparency for political advertising and campaigning on social media.

Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS select committee

It follows widespread concern that giant platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have failed to take appropriate action against online child abuse, bullying, hate crimes and terrorism. New safeguarding measures are also aimed at tackling the use of the “dark web” by organised criminals engaged in child abuse, trafficking, and the sale of illegal weapons, goods and drugs.

Launching the white paper, home secretary Sajid Javid said: “Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online.”

But the proposals also purport to tackle the spread of “fake news”, “disinformation” and “dark ads” – including temporary adverts often used to target specific voters – which have been widely used across the world to influence or undermine democratic processes such as elections and referendums.

However, senior Conservative and Labour politicians are concerned that the proposals outlined today are weak in this area and leave any forthcoming general election exposed.

Damian Collins MP, Conservative chair of the DCMS select committee, said: “The white paper does not address the concerns raised by the select committee into the need for transparency for political advertising and campaigning on social media.

“Even [Facebook creator] Mark Zuckerberg is begging for regulation”

Tom Watson MP

“We understand that this will soon be addressed separately by the Cabinet Office. It is vital that our electoral law is brought up to date as soon as possible, so that social media users know who is contacting them with political messages and why. Should there be an early election, then emergency legislation should be introduced to achieve this.”

Collins’ view was echoed by Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Watson has long expressed concerns about the potentially insidious use of election data and political funding to influence the outcome of key votes.

He told the Byline Times that some of world’s biggest online platforms are now aware of the threat. “Even [Facebook creator] Mark Zuckerberg is begging for regulation,” Watson said.Questions about dark ads and funding streams arose on the back of the successful Brexit campaign in Britain. The Electoral Commission raised concerns about breaches of electoral laws through data use, while the National Crime Agency and Metropolitan Police are separately investigating complaints about the Brexit campaign.

But Brexit is not the only issue around which concerns have been raised globally. Countries such as the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Thailand all have issues with the regulation or monitoring of online political campaigns or data use.

Following the Mueller Report into alleged Russian meddling in the United States 2016 presidential election, experts have warned that the US system is still vulnerable – and that the 2020 could be targeted.

Commenting on broader proposals to tackle fake news and disinformation in the Online harms white paper, Damian Collins MP said: “Disinformation is clearly harmful to democracy and society as a whole. The social media companies must have a responsibility to act against accounts and groups that are consistently and maliciously sharing known sources of disinformation.

Ministers have proposed a statutory “duty of care” forcing tech companies to become more responsible for online safety.

“This is important not only in the fight against the disruption of democracy but also to combat the spreading of other harmful information, like anti-vaccination messages which are endangering the lives of young and vulnerable people. These responsibilities need to be clearly defined.”

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