Select Committee publishes report on the Online Harms White Paper

July 2, 2019

The House of Commons Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee has published a report on the Online Harms White Paper. In the report, the Committee calls on the UK government to introduce new legislation within six months to protect against online electoral interference. The report also calls for a statutory veto over the appointment of a new online harms regulator.

The Report states that the UK government has ignored recommendations in the DCMS Committee’s previous final report into Disinformation and ‘fake news’ for urgent action. Its recommendations in the previous report were 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

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 about 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. The report expresses 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 comply with electoral law.

The Report notes that the Online Harms White Paper has little focus on electoral interference and online political advertising, both of which the Committee had highlighted previously 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.

The report makes the point that MPs’ concerns about omissions in the White Paper are shared by the Information Commissioner. The ICO has also published its response which states that it remains “surprised and disappointed at the lack of engagement within the White Paper with the societal harm of electoral interference and the need for greater transparency in online political advertising and micro targeting. If left unaddressed, this risks undermining the fabric of our democracy”.

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.