The Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has told MPs she was both "surprised and disappointed" that the Government’s long-awaited Online Harms white paper - published earlier this month - failed to focus on adverts that use disinformation to influence elections, an issue which she branded a "huge societal harm". Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Sub-Committee this week, Denham insisted that the absence of this insight was "concerning".
She said: "I was surprised and disappointed that there wasn’t more focus on what I think is a huge societal harm, which is around electoral interference and the need for more transparency in political advertising. It’s surprising to me and concerning that the Government hasn’t done a comprehensive examination of political advertising and the oversight that’s needed in this space."
The Sub-Committee on Disinformation was set up after the main committee completed its investigation into fake news online and the Cambridge Analytica scandal following concerns that the issues raised needed further investigation.
On the subject of Brexit, Denham was quizzed on whether she thought that the Government’s preoccupation with leaving the EU had hindered progress on reforming political advertising.
She responded: "It’s challenging and there is not enough legislative time to make improvements needed to protect our democratic processes."
Denham also revealed that the ICO is still investigating adverts on Facebook that ran during the 2016 EU referendum on both sides of the debate. One key element was the 1,000 ads placed by pro-Brexit group Mainstream Network, which, according to the ICO, had generated about one million clicks. The group spent more than £250,000 on its campaign.
The ICO is looking into what had happened to the data of those who had clicked on the ads, who the ads had been placed by and how they had used Facebook’s targeting tools.
Denham added: "You can’t leave it to an individual company. There need to be more robust transparency tools and there needs to be regulation that requires companies to have systems in place to give real transparency.
"The world has moved quite quickly into digital campaigning and these campaigns run 365 days a year. There are more ways than ever before to harvest data."