/UK ignores warnings of digital election interference

UK ignores warnings of digital election interference

LONDON — As the U.K. general election gets underway, the government has done little to protect voters from malicious and foreign influence online.

Despite a slew of warnings from regulators and politicians, British ministers have not acted to fix vulnerabilities in the U.K.’s antiquated electoral laws. That has raised fears that the December 12 poll will once again be marred by clandestine digital political interference.

“We have to expect that the current system will remain broken,” said Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who chairs the U.K. parliament’s digital committee that is investigating online disinformation. “Shadowy campaign groups that support different interests, but are not officially connected to any one political party, will make themselves heard online.”

The failure to act, according to several U.K. politicians, civil servants and regulators who spoke to POLITICO, stems from widespread concern that any revamp of electoral rules could bring up uncomfortable questions about the legality of the 2016 Brexit referendum. They also warned the country’s pending departure from the European Union had overshadowed almost all other policymaking, including the need to update the U.K.’s electoral rules for the digital age.

Many of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing regulatory push to update the country’s electoral rules.

Despite London’s bullish talk, the message from regulators could not have been clearer: new digital campaign rules are needed, and needed now.

The previous government had recognized that urgent action was needed to shore up the U.K.’s democracy, and in her final days in No. 10 Downing Street, Theresa May decided it was time to get tough.

In some of the most aggressive plans announced anywhere in the Western world, London said it wanted to clamp down on online abuse and digital election interference.

The proposals, published in early May just before the Conservative prime minister announced her resignation, included going after those who bullied others online; boosting transparency efforts when groups bought digital political ads; and restricting how foreign donors could give to local parties.

But as the British parliament shuts down Wednesday and the country enters full-blown campaign mode — nothing has changed.

UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

circle.fill-7-Con,
rect.fill-7-Con,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-Con,
text.fill-7-Con {
fill: #2175d9;
}

circle.stroke-7-Con,
rect.stroke-7-Con,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-Con,
text.stroke-7-Con {
stroke: #2175d9;
}
circle.fill-7-Lab,
rect.fill-7-Lab,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-Lab,
text.fill-7-Lab {
fill: #F0001C;
}

circle.stroke-7-Lab,
rect.stroke-7-Lab,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-Lab,
text.stroke-7-Lab {
stroke: #F0001C;
}
circle.fill-7-LibDem,
rect.fill-7-LibDem,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-LibDem,
text.fill-7-LibDem {
fill: #FF7F00;
}

circle.stroke-7-LibDem,
rect.stroke-7-LibDem,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-LibDem,
text.stroke-7-LibDem {
stroke: #FF7F00;
}
circle.fill-7-BP,
rect.fill-7-BP,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-BP,
text.fill-7-BP {
fill: #29dbc9;
}

circle.stroke-7-BP,
rect.stroke-7-BP,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-BP,
text.stroke-7-BP {
stroke: #29dbc9;
}
circle.fill-7-SNP,
rect.fill-7-SNP,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-SNP,
text.fill-7-SNP {
fill: #facd50;
}

circle.stroke-7-SNP,
rect.stroke-7-SNP,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-SNP,
text.stroke-7-SNP {
stroke: #facd50;
}
circle.fill-7-Green,
rect.fill-7-Green,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-Green,
text.fill-7-Green {
fill: #58AB27;
}

circle.stroke-7-Green,
rect.stroke-7-Green,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-Green,
text.stroke-7-Green {
stroke: #58AB27;
}
circle.fill-7-PLPW,
rect.fill-7-PLPW,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-PLPW,
text.fill-7-PLPW {
fill: #46a35c;
}

circle.stroke-7-PLPW,
rect.stroke-7-PLPW,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-PLPW,
text.stroke-7-PLPW {
stroke: #46a35c;
}
circle.fill-7-ChUK,
rect.fill-7-ChUK,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-ChUK,
text.fill-7-ChUK {
fill: #687891;
}

circle.stroke-7-ChUK,
rect.stroke-7-ChUK,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-ChUK,
text.stroke-7-ChUK {
stroke: #687891;
}
circle.fill-7-UKIP,
rect.fill-7-UKIP,
svg.colorize path.fill-7-UKIP,
text.fill-7-UKIP {
fill: #8C3473;
}

circle.stroke-7-UKIP,
rect.stroke-7-UKIP,
svg.colorize path.stroke-7-UKIP,
text.stroke-7-UKIP {
stroke: #8C3473;
}

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Warning after warning

U.K. lawmakers’ failure to respond to increasingly sophisticated digital political tactics has put the country on the front line in a global battle to protect elections in an era of Facebook political ads, growing mistrust in media outlets and mounting tribalism over Brexit.

Since the 2016 referendum, regulators including the British privacy watchdog and Electoral Commission, which oversees the country’s polls, have published repeated warnings that the current system is not fit for purpose.

Parliamentary committees, in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, have held hearing after hearing about how anonymous digital groups are targeting voters online. And a report into potential Russian interference in British politics — in the hands of the U.K. government since October 17 — is not expected to be published until after December’s vote, despite intense pressure from MPs.

In response, the government maintained that there was no evidence that any foreign country had meddled in either the Brexit referendum or 2017 general election and that regulators had wide-ranging powers to police potential abuse online. They add that officials are working on policies that would further ensure British voters were protected against online actors.

On Tuesday, the U.K. government also urged social media companies to help political candidates so that they could report abusive and intimidatory content on their platforms — policies that were already in place at both Facebook and Twitter. The calls mirrored similar legislative proposals that May had championed before she stepped down as prime minister.

Asked whether the government had done enough to avoid online interference in the election, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “We have set out a clear position well in advance of this election in relation to political advertising. It is something on which we have focused.”

Clear and present danger

Despite London’s bullish talk, the message from regulators could not have been clearer: New digital campaign rules are needed, and needed now.

In the summer of 2018, both the Information Commissioner’s Office, the country’s data protection agency, and the Electoral Commission published calls to update the country’s electoral rulings after their separate regulatory investigations discovered several areas that were open to abuse.

That included the potential misuse of people’s data — including voters’ addresses and other personal information — by campaigners looking to target individuals on social media, as well as political groups facing paltry fines if they failed to comply with campaign-financing rules when buying online partisan ads. Under current rules, the Electoral Commission had issued maximum fines of up to £20,000 for wrongdoing.

Despite Twitter announcing on October 30 a ban on all political advertising on its social network, the vast majority of such paid-for partisan messages run on Facebook’s platforms, according to a review of political party spending around the 2017 U.K. election. It’s unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, will follow suit after he said he would not fact-check the language in messages run by politicians worldwide.

Twitter has banned all political advertising on its platform | Leon Neal/Getty Images

“People expect their personal information to be used in line with law,” Elizabeth Denham, the country’s privacy chief, told U.K. political parties in an open letter on November 5. “Where that doesn’t happen in digital campaigning, there’s a danger that public trust and confidence in the broader democracy process is damaged.”

In the aftermath of both reports, the U.K. government was divided on how to respond, according to two officials who were involved in the discussions.

Part of the problem was that dealing with cybersecurity and disinformation falls between two departments — the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport — making it difficult to move quickly on underhand digital tactics that were fast evolving, according to one of the officials.

There was also inherent conflict in asking politicians — many of whom relied on digital campaigning to reach voters and get elected — to set rules that could potentially hobble their online canvassing efforts.

“My concern is that we’ve now pointed out all the loopholes in the existing regulation” — Kate Dommett, academic at Sheffield University

While Britain’s data protection agency wanted to include all data in new electoral rules to limit so-called micro-targeting — using voters’ digital footprints to bombard them with tailored social media messages — some within the U.K. government believed that would go too far, according to the officials.

Instead, U.K. politicians favored a more hands-off approach that would still give political parties access to constituents’ digital information. The stand-off between the government and regulators has led to an impasse on what to do next, with the results of a consultation into political parties’ use of data now not due to be published ahead of December’s vote.

Both the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission have called on political parties to respect existing decades-old electoral rules, and have published non-binding guidance on how they should target voters online.

Election interference playbook

While British officials have dragged their feet, others have been eager to learn from the various regulatory and parliamentary proposals that have flooded out of London over the last 18 months.

Countries from France to Canada have all sent delegations to learn from the British proposals, often implementing their recommendations ahead of their own national votes, according to three policymakers involved in those discussions.

That was particularly true ahead of the most recent Canadian election last month in which Ottawa created a nonpartisan taskforce to respond quickly to potential foreign interference that was based, in part, on a similar organization within the U.K.’s Cabinet Office.

The other major beneficiaries of Britain’s efforts, however, are less benign.

In Canada, a non-partisan taskforce was created to tackle potential election interference ahead of October’s vote | Brett Gundlock/Getty Images

Kate Dommett, an academic at Sheffield University who is also a special adviser to the U.K. House of Lords’ committee on democracy and digital technologies, said that by publishing detailed accounts of how actors can potentially target voters illegally online, Britain had created an election interference playbook with which tactics were most effective.

Without new rules in place before December — something that is no longer on the table after the U.K. parliament closed for business ahead of the nationwide vote — voters are still at risk with limited, if any, responses from both regulators and politicians to protect them.

“My concern is that we’ve now pointed out all the loopholes in the existing regulation,” said Dommett. “And we’re still unable to trace and verify online campaign material. We’re unable to tell what is coordinated digital political activity, and what isn’t.”

Annabelle Dickson and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting from London.

This article is from POLITICO Pro: POLITICO’s premium policy service. To discover why thousands of professionals rely on Pro every day, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

Original Source