UK data chief 'disappointed' government failing to tighten rules on political Facebook ads

Finance and policy reporter
Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

The UK’s information commissioner has attacked the government for failing to tighten the rules on political advertising on Facebook and other social media sites.

Elizabeth Denham, who was appointed by the government in 2016, said she was “surprised and disappointed” a recent white paper on so-called ‘online harms’ gave so little attention to electoral interference and political advertising.

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She said more oversight was needed of political campaigns online, highlighting a “gap” in regulation of organisations other than the main political parties or political activities outside the short campaign period.

Her comments come amid heightened fears, since the EU referendum and Cambridge Analytica scandal, of under-the-radar micro-targeting of voters online, misuse of personal data in elections and electoral interference by little-known organisations that can prove difficult to hold to account.

READ MORE: EU tells Google and Facebook to do more to fight fake news

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), run by Denham, has previously accused Facebook of failing to be open with users about how and why they might be targeted by political campaigns online.

Denham told a hearing of parliament’s sub-committee on disinformation today:  “I was surprised and disappointed there wasn’t more focus on what I think is a huge societal harm, which is around electoral interference and the need for more transparency in political advertising.”

She called for a “comprehensive examination” of political advertising, and for it to be seen as a potential “significant online harm.”

She added: “Campaigns are now 365 days a year, and there’s many parties involved that aren’t necessarily overseen by the Electoral Commission or Advertising Standards Authority.”

She also said the ICO was drafting a code it hoped the government would put into law to regulate data use in political campaigns.

“If we had a statutory code, it would go a long way to clarifying what the rules are. We are ready with advice to campaigns and political parties for local elections, as well as European elections,” she said.

Facebook has tightened up its rules on political campaigns under pressure from authorities around the world.

In November it said UK advertisers running political ads now had to give their identity, location and source of funding, while their adverts would be stored in an ‘ad library’ for seven years.

Last month it also said it had put significant resources into monitoring adverts for the European elections across the EU, which take place on 26 May.

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