UK lawmakers urge new law in digital age campaigning

LONDON (AP) — An influential British parliamentary committee urged the government yesterday to urgently bring forward new laws addressing campaigning techniques in the digital age, insisting that democracy itself is under threat without speedy action.

Committee Chairman Damian Collins accused the government of ignoring key recommendations in an earlier report on fake news and says it is moving on a timetable fit for 2021 or 2022 — the scheduled date of the next major election. But Britain’s pending departure from the European Union has tossed the country into political turmoil, and it is possible an election could take place sooner.

“We know that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose,” Collins said. “Political campaigns are fought online, not through the letter box and our laws need to be brought up to date with the digital age.”

Collins has been appealing for a coordinated approach across all aspects of government to combat campaigns of disinformation and to protect electoral systems. The work has heaped pressure on social media companies, who have faced global scrutiny following allegations that political consultant Cambridge Analytica used data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts to profile voters and help United States (US) President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

Collins has been sharply critical of tech companies like Facebook for allowing Russian agencies to use its platform to spread disinformation and influence elections. The committee wanted the Silicon Valley giants to take responsibility for the way the platforms are used.

But Collins and the lawmakers said it is time to move now. The committee wants new laws in six months that would introduce a new category for digital spending on campaigns and to ensure that political advertising is logged in a public repository that is searchable. It said it would also explore “how anti-money laundering regulations might be adapted to ensure political parties can be held accountable for their financing practices in the era of digital payment systems.”

Collins also wants the government to acknowledge the power Facebook Groups and unpaid campaigns can have in influencing elections and referendums.

“We’ve repeatedly highlighted threats to our electoral system and it’s essential that public confidence is restored,” Collins said.

The lawmakers noted in their report that Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham had shared their concerns, describing it as “surprising and concerning,” that the government failed to examine the oversight needed in the political advertising sphere.