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UK watchdog wants disclosure rules for political ads on social media

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The UK’s data protection agency will push for increased transparency into how personal data flows between digital platforms to ensure people being targeted for political advertising are able to understand why and how it is happening.

Information commissioner Elizabeth Deham said visibility into ad targeting systems is needed so that people can exercise their rights — such as withdrawing consent to their personal data being processed should they wish.

“Data protection is not a back-room, back-office issue anymore,” she said yesterday. “It is right at the centre of these debates about our democracy, the impact of social media on our lives and the need for these companies to step up and take their responsibilities seriously.”

“What I am going to suggest is that there needs to be transparency for the people who are receiving that message, so they can understand how their data was matched up and used to be the audience for the receipt of that message. That is where people are asking for more transparency,” she added.

The commissioner was giving her thoughts on how social media platforms should be regulated in an age of dis(and mis)information during an evidence session in front of a UK parliamentary committee that’s investigating fake news and the changing role of digital advertising.

Her office (the ICO) is preparing its own report this spring — which she said is likely to be published in May — which will lay out its recommendations for government.

“We want more people to participate in our democratic life and democratic institutions, and social media is an important part of that, but we also do not want social media to be a chill in what needs to be the commons, what needs to be available for public debate,” she said.

“We need information that is transparent, otherwise we will push people into little filter bubbles, where they have no idea about what other people are saying and what the other side of the campaign is saying. We want to make sure that social media is used well.

“It has changed dramatically since 2008. The Obama campaign was the first time that there was a lot of use of data analytics and social media in campaigning. It is a good thing, but it needs to be made more transparent, and we need to control and regulate how political campaigning is happening on social media, and the platforms need to do more.”

Last fall UK prime minister Theresa May publicly accused Russia of weaponizing online information in an attempt to skew democratic processes in the West.

And in January the government announced it would set up a dedicated national security unit to combat state-led disinformation campaigns.

Last month May also ordered a review of the law around social media platforms, as well as announcing a code of conduct aimed at cracking down on extremist and abusive content — another Internet policy she’s prioritized.

So regulating online content has already been accelerated to the top of government in the UK — as it is increasingly on the agenda in Europe.

Although it’s not yet clear how the UK government will seek to regulate social media platforms to control political advertising.

Denham’s suggestion to the committee was for a code of conduct.

“I think the use of social media in political campaigns, referendums, elections and so on may have got ahead of where the law is,” she argued. “I think it might be time for a code of conduct so that everybody is on a level playing field and knows what the rules are.

“I think there are some politicians, some MPs, who are concerned about the use of these new tools, particularly when there are analytics and algorithms that are determining how to micro-target someone, when they might not have transparency and the law behind them.”

She added that the ICO’s incoming policy report will conclude that “transparency is important”.

“People do not understand the chain of companies involved. If they are using an app that is running off the Facebook site and there are other third parties involved, they do not know how to control their data,” she argued.

“Right now, I think we all agree that it is much too difficult and much too opaque. That is what we need to tackle. This Committee needs to tackle it, we need to tackle it at the ICO, and the companies have to get behind us, or they are going to lose the trust of users and the digital economy.”

She also spoke up generally for more education on how digital systems work — so that users of services can “take up their rights”.

“They have to take up their rights. They have to push companies. Regulators have to be on their game. I think politicians have to support new changes to the law if that is what we need,” she added.

And she described the incoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a “game-changer” — arguing it could underpin a push for increased transparency around the data flows that are feeding and shaping public opinions. Although she conceded that regulating such data flows to achieve the sought for accountability will require a fully joined up effort.

“I would like to be an optimist. The point behind the General Data Protection Regulation as a step-up in the law is to try to give back control to individuals so that they have a say in how their data are processed, so that they do not just throw up their hands or put it on the ‘too difficult’ pile. I think that is really important. There is a whole suite of things and a whole village that has to work together to be able to make that happen.”

The committee recently took evidence from Cambridge Analytica — the UK based company credited with helping Donald Trump win the US presidency by creating psychological profiles of US voters for ad targeting purposes.

Denham was asked for her response to seeing CEO Alexander Nix’s evidence. But said she could not comment to avoid prejudicing the ICO’s own ongoing investigation into data analytics for political purposes.

She did confirm that a data request by US voter and professor David Carroll, who has been trying to use UK data protection law to access the data held on him for political ad targeting purposes by Cambridge Analytica, is forming one of the areas of the ICO enquiry — saying it’s looking at “how an individual becomes the recipient of a certain message” and “what information is used to categorise him or her, whether psychographic technologies are used, how the categories are fixed and what kind of data has fed into that decision”.

Although she also said the ICO’s enquiry into political data analytics is ranging more widely.

“People need to know the provenance and the source of the data and information that is used to make decisions about the receipt of messages. We are really looking at — it is a data audit. That is really what we are carrying out,” she added.

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