At the last session of the historic Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee on disinformation and fake news, the online payment system giant joins other tech companies in declaring ‘we’re just a platform’.
Following Byline Times‘ exclusive revelation that the donations system for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party ‘couldn’t be less secure’, the DCMS committee chaired by Damian Collins MP called in two executives from the online payment giant Paypal to give evidence.
Richard Nash, vice president and head of global government relations at Paypal, and Eva Gustavsson, director of governmental relations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, were grilled for an hour-and-a-half by the committee of MPs who had exposed the Cambridge Analytica hacking of Facebook, Russian interference in UK elections, as well as overspending and data misuse by both Leave campaigns during the 2016 EU Referendum.
Following revelations that the Brexit Party allowed hundreds of thousands in donations to be made via Paypal in April – without gathering the addresses of donors – Damian Collins suggested that there should be a default setting for any political campaign to ensure that it cannot use Paypal’s donation system unless address settings for donors are turned on.
“I think you guys should be responsible… just as I say Facebook should be responsible”Ian Lucas MP
Under UK electoral law, donations of £500 or over to British political parties must be declared. Without a proper tracking of the addresses of donors to the electoral roll, it would be possible for individuals to atomise large donations into lots of small payments under £500, Collins explained.
Nash replied that this “is a matter for Parliament and the Electoral Commission”. Although he insisted that PayPal had a “sophisticated engine” to prevent fraud and money laundering, he and his colleague seemed to accept that individuals could set up multiple email addresses around a single “funding instrument”.
Fellow committee member Ian Lucas MP, a former lawyer who is standing down as Labour MP for Wrexham this Wednesday, pressed the executives about setting up a system to flag foreign payments. Richard Nash replied: “I don’t think that’s our responsibility. Our responsibility is to run a highly regulated payments system and to protect the integrity of that payments system.”
Lucas observed that “Facebook said the same about Cambridge Analytica” – referring back to the scandal of dark political ads and micro-targeting revealed by whistle-blower Chris Wylie. “I think you guys should be responsible,” Lucas continued “just as I say Facebook should be responsible.”
Labour MP Jo Stevens pointed out that the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, had deemed that PayPal represented a “high and ongoing risk” of unlawful political donations. However, Gustavsson repeated that “our job is to run a payment system”.
Though pressed on several occasions, neither executives could tell the committee when electoral fraud had become a topic of conversation at PayPal, but promised to report back with more information.
Winding up a landmark three years examining the role of tech companies and social media in political campaigns, Damian Collins noted that the terms of service between PayPal and Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant meant that the payment provider could be sharing more data with Facebook than with the political parties – which could be used for its audience targeting.
Collins also made the comparison between PayPal’s hands-off attitude to electoral fraud and that of Facebook’s over the use of its platform by the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency – a major source of interference in the 2016 US presidential election, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“Facebook said the crime was only committed in Russia,” Collins said “but only Facebook could see the crime.”
This was the last hearing of the DCMS committee as currently constituted, with MPs now facing a general election and the reformation of the committee in a new Parliament.