Steve Dempsey: 'Inching towards regulation'
Europe has a plan for misinformation during elections. The European Commission wants to establish an early-warning system to alert governments and push tech companies to do more to stop disinformation before next year's EU elections. They're even pointing the finger at a very particular bad guy.
"There is strong evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of disinformation in Europe. Disinformation is part of Russia's military doctrine and part of a strategy to divide and weaken the West," said Andrus Ansip, the European commissioner for digital single market and vice-president of the European Commission. "Russia spends €1.1bn a year on pro-Kremlin media. You will also have heard about the troll factory based in St Petersburg and bot armies. Many member states have already taken action to counter these threats. We need to work together and coordinate our efforts in a European way, protecting our freedoms."
But things are moving at a slower pace in Ireland. The Government is continuing its deliberations around regulating online political ads, following an initial interdepartmental report, which indicated the risks to the electoral process were relatively low. But the report did voice concerns around the spread of online disinformation and cyber-attacks on our electoral system.
So in a swanky room in Dublin Castle last Thursday, the Government held an open policy forum. Academics, civil servants, online advertisers and others had their say on topics ranging from the electoral process in ancient Rome, to Ireland's ill-fated flirtation with electronic voting. It was an unfocused, rather rambling tour through the legislative considerations around political advertising. But I guess that's what you get when you convene an open forum, right?
There were some common threads, though. One was the lack of comprehensive data and research on the effect of online political advertising. Another was the need for any regulation to protect freedom of expression. There were plenty of nods to the current regulatory frameworks for political campaigns and questions around whether it was possible to migrate offline legislation onto the internet.
Fianna Fail's James Lawless's draft bill to regulate advertising on social media also focused minds - and the conversation. He pointed out that no State agency or other body is responsible for monitoring ads on social channels. Not the Standards in Public Office Commission, not the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, not the Referendum Commission, not the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. "It's a bit of a wild west", said Lawless. In response, his bill defines political advertising and makes a transparency notice mandatory, explaining who paid for the ad and why you're seeing it. It also bans bots being deliberately used towards a political end and creates offences that can result in fines of up to €10,000 and five years' imprisonment.
Facebook and Google were also there and both outlined steps they are taking to tackle the spread of misinformation and overseas interference around elections and referendums. Facebook has run a media literacy ad campaign - ironically, the social platform relied on full-page ads in newspapers to get its message across. It also has a fact checking partnership with the Journal.ie, where content found to be false had its visibility decreased. Ahead of the European Parliament elections in May of next year, Google stressed political ads will have to carry transparency notices showing who paid, and ad targeting will be limited to age range, gender and location. No targeting according to sensitive information will be allowed. All this data will be compiled into a publicly available transparency report.
Representatives from Google and Facebook were keen to trumpet their initiatives. But both digital behemoths admitted they need help to combat electoral interference and the spread of misinformation. "We welcome clarity in this space," said Niamh Sweeney, head of public policy for Facebook in Ireland. "We found ourselves in an uncomfortable space prior to the referendum where we had to interpret certain laws in a vacuum. We can't solve these problems alone."
At the start of the forum, Communications Minister Richard Bruton said legislators shouldn't make knee-jerk reactions around regulating political advertising. He's right, of course. But if Europe is proposing a war chest to tackle misinformation, and Facebook and Google are asking for help in this jurisdiction, perhaps it's time for some urgency.
Sunday Indo Business