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Committee publishes report on the Online Harms White Paper

2 July 2019

Committee calls for urgent legislation to safeguard future elections and new power of veto

The DCMS Committee is calling on the Government to introduce new legislation within six months to protect against online electoral interference. MPs are also demanding a statutory veto over the appointment of a new online harms regulator.

In the Report on the Government's Online Harms White Paper, MPs accuse the Government of ignoring recommendations in the DCMS Committee's final report into Disinformation and ‘fake news' for urgent action, namely to:

  • Introduce a new category for digital spending on political campaigns
  • Ensure information about all online political advertising material is logged in a searchable public repository
  • Acknowledge the risks of foreign investment in elections, for example via digital payments
  • Acknowledge the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook Groups in influencing elections and referendums, inside and outside the designated period

Chair's comment

Damian Collins, Chair of the DCMS Committee said:

“We're calling on the Government to bring in urgent legislation before the end of the year to protect our democracy against online electoral interference.

“We know that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. Political campaigns are fought online, not through the letter box and our laws need to be brought up to date with the digital age. We've repeatedly highlighted threats to our electoral system and it's essential that public confidence is restored.”

Committee Report

Update electoral law as matter of urgency

MPs have given the Government a deadline of 24 July to respond to their call for new legislation to bring electoral law into line with digital campaigning techniques and commit to prioritising this aspect of legislation during the current parliamentary Session.

The DCMS Committee will take further evidence on the subject during July 2019, including taking advice on how such legislation might be drafted. It will 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. MPs express concern that a political party could participate in an election without satisfying the Electoral Commission that it has the appropriate financial procedures in place to meet electoral law.

The Report notes that the Online Harms White Paper has scant focus on electoral interference and online political advertising, both of which the Committee had highlighted as requiring urgent action. A further recommendation that the White Paper should include analysis about foreign players targeting voters and whether current legislation to protect the electoral process from malign influence is sufficient has also been overlooked.

MPs point to their concerns about omissions in the White Paper being shared by the Information Commissioner. In evidence, Elizabeth Denham said was “surprised and disappointed that there was not more focus on […] electoral interference, and on the need for more transparency in political advertising.”

Call for statutory right to veto appointment chief executive of new online harms regulator

MPs are calling for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to public confidence in the new online harms regulator by giving the DCMS Committee a statutory veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chief executive of the new regulator. The Government is asked to respond by the end of July to confirm its support for the Committee's role in the appointment process, including the provision of a statutory veto.

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