New election transparency rules—a step in the right direction, but not far enough

This stricter plan for online political ads is just one of the changes required to safeguard democracy

August 19, 2020
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

The government has announced plans to require “imprints” on online election materials. That may sound esoteric, but it’s important for the health of democracy. So is this a step in the right direction?

First, some context. Political campaigns, though often infuriating, are vital to democracy. They allow parties and campaigners to communicate directly with voters. They let voters engage in democratic debate. They provide information on the issues and candidates, allowing voters to make an informed choice.

A key component of political campaigns is “election material,” which the law defines as “material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election”—leaflets, posters, newspaper ads and, increasingly in recent years, social media and other online ads.

Offline, printed election materials have to display an “imprint”—a disclosure stating who is promoting them and has paid for them. This helps voters see who is trying to exert influence. It also assists the Electoral Commission in enforcing the crucial rules on campaign spending.

But imprints are as yet not required for online political ads, even though the Electoral Commission has been calling for them since 2003. As online campaigning has grown in importance—from less than 1 per cent of campaign ad spending a decade ago to somewhere near half today—that has become an increasingly troubling omission. A plethora of politicians, parliamentary committees, regulators, academics and independent organisations have backed the change.

Following a consultation in 2018, the government committed to extending the imprint rules last May, but took no action before the general election. The digital platforms themselves attempted to fill the gap by requiring imprints on political ads on their sites. But this has been piecemeal and opaque. Facebook initially required news outlets, as well as parties and campaigners, to display the “paid for by” disclaimer for ads promoting articles related to politics. In any case, election rules should be decided democratically, not by multinational tech giants.

So last week’s Cabinet Office announcement setting out concrete proposals for digital imprints is very welcome.

The government is proposing to require imprints for all paid-for digital election material and for unpaid (“organic”) material promoted by, or on behalf of, candidates, parties and registered third-party campaigners. Unpaid material published by unregistered campaigners will be excluded—so regular members of the public will be able to go on posting online without falling foul of the law.

Each imprint will feature “the name and address of the promoter of the material” and “of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published.” In practice, it might, for example, say: “Promoted by David Evans, General Secretary of the Labour Party, on behalf of the Labour Party,” followed by an office address. It will have to be located on the advert itself “where that is reasonably practicable” or, if not, in a location linked to the material. The new rules will apply to digital election material regardless of where in the world it comes from, and will be in force all-year round, not just during elections.

The Electoral Commission will enforce the rules for parties and third-party campaigners. The police will do so for imprints on candidate materials, reflecting a wider distinction in electoral law.

Most of this is very sensible—the government deserves praise for doing a serious job here. Care will be needed to ensure that the “reasonably practicable” rule does not create a loophole that can be exploited, and that imprints on linked materials are not too obscure to be noticed. It will also be vital to ensure that the Electoral Commission has sufficient powers and resources to enforce the rules effectively. The commission is often maligned by politicians who dislike its past decisions. But its role as an independent regulator is vital, and must be enhanced, not undermined.

So the proposals are welcome. But further action is required—digital imprints are a necessary, but insufficient response to the challenges of online democracy. Three key additional steps are needed.

First, digital platforms must be required to set up online ad libraries, where anyone can view current and past political ads and see detailed information on where those ads have been targeted—ie to which people in which constituencies or demographic groups. The big tech companies have recently created such libraries on their own, but the information they provide—for example, on targeting of individual constituencies—is inadequate.

Second, a comprehensive digital media literacy strategy covering schools and the general public should be developed and implemented. The government has reaffirmed its commitment to this in its paper on imprints, but concrete action is now needed.

Third, more broadly, steps should be taken to improve the availability of high-quality information for voters, both on- and offline. As we have argued before, electoral democracy functions effectively only if voters can access the information they want from sources they trust. That information should be accurate, balanced, relevant to the issues that matter to people, and accessible to all. Politicians, broadcasters, journalists, academics, and others all have a responsibility to consider what they could do to push this positive information agenda forward.


Michela Palese is Research and Policy Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London. They co-authored the 2019 report Doing Democracy Better: Improving Discourse During Elections and Referendum Campaigns.