UK government consults on proposals to make online political advertising more transparent

August 13, 2020

In 2019 the UK government committed to introducing a digital imprints regime following feedback from the consultation ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’ which indicated broad support for the idea.

It has now launched a consultation on making online political advertising more transparent. Its key aim is to ensure that political parties and campaigners must explicitly show who they are when promoting campaign content, using a digital imprint. In addition, printed material in Northern Ireland will require an imprint. A digital imprints regime was in place for the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and the UK government has drawn from that experience in developing its proposal.

It says that it is important to emphasise that digital campaigning is a positive innovation for engagement in democracy but digital material does not currently require an imprint, which means  voters may not be able to assess who is responsible for promoting digital election material and on whose behalf it is being promoted. According to the government, the problem is particularly acute when it comes to third party campaigners who may aim for a more general outcome beyond a particular candidate, so it is sometimes less obvious who they represent and on whose behalf they are acting. Voters want more transparency.

The existing printed imprints regime allows for transparency and also allows the Electoral Commission to better identify and monitor who is producing election material and enforce the spending rules. The intention is not to create a regime which will police the accuracy or truthfulness of content. There are also wider issues around political advertising more generally (of which election material is one subset) – for example issue-based advertising from third party organisations or campaign groups. The government seeks feedback on whether digital imprints should be expanded beyond what is considered election material, to wider online political advertising.

In summary, the proposals have seven key areas of focus:

  • extension of the regime to digital election material;
  • materials subject to the regime – those promoting electoral success and registered political parties and campaigners, unregistered third party organisations will only be caught if they pay for the material;
  • details on the imprint – that is, the name and address of the promoter of the material; and the name and address of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published (and who is not the promoter);
  • location of the imprint – it needs to be part of the material or accessible to users of the material for example in the “bio” section of a page or via a link;
  • appearance of the imprint – it must be clear and prominent and not be distorted if the material is shared;
  • re-publishing of election material – if republishing substantially changes the material it will require a new imprint; or if a campaigner re-publishing unpaid election material from unregistered third parties; and 
  • territoriality – digital election material will be subject to the regime regardless of the country it is being promoted from.

The promoter of the material – the person causing it to be published – will be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine where material is published in contravention of the requirement for it to have a digital imprint. Only those who are subject to the requirement to include an imprint will be liable to penalties for non-compliance. Platforms should be encouraged to facilitate compliance for campaigners by establishing their own platform-specific solutions for including an imprint that satisfies the requirements of the regulations. Many platforms have already developed approaches to including similar information to that of imprints as part of some election material. For example, some have developed “paid for by” disclaimers to show who has paid for advertising about UK elections and “election labels” for specified political candidates. The regulator will have an essential role in establishing guidance on how to apply the rules.

The consultation ends on 4 November 2020. A response is due to be published by winter 2020.