Posts by Fair Vote Project

ICO’s Letter to Parliament on Cambridge Analytica

07/10/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “ICO’s Letter to Parliament on Cambridge Analytica”

Yesterday the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham sent a letter to Parliament summarising the ICO’s wide-ranging investigation into Cambridge Analytica (and its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories) and the wider world of data harvesting and targeted political advertising.

This was one of the scandals that gave birth to Fair Vote UK. Trying to protect our democracy from the toxic world it exposed is what drives us everyday.

The letter shines further light on the sorry saga of Cambridge Analytica and the part-incompetent, part-dangerous industry that it existed in (and which by no means has gone away).

In Cambridge Analytica, the Information Commissioner paints a picture of a shoddy outfit with very big aspirations.

What could be a more dangerous combination?

Cambridge Analytica appears to have been:

  • Disorganised. ‘My investigation found data in a variety of locations, with little thought for effective security measures.’
  • Dishonest. ‘There appeared to be concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality of their processing.’
  • Sneaky. ‘We also identified evidence that in its latter stages Cambridge Analytica was drawing up plans to relocate its data offshore to avoid regulatory scrutiny by the ICO.’
  • Ineffective. ‘Strategic Communication Laboratories’s own marketing material claimed they had “Over 5,000 data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans.” Based on what we found it appears that this may have been an exaggeration.’

 

Despite these myriad flaws (charlatanry has a long history in the world of political data “science”), Cambridge Analytica was able to use the tools made available to them by Facebook to ‘improperly’ acquire the personal data of millions of citizens.

They then used this improperly acquired data to feed machine learning algorithms with the intention of predicting voter behaviour.

Facebook’s complicity in all of this (whether knowledgeable or not) should not be downplayed. They built this terrible system and then sold it to whichever unscrupulous enterprise provided the money.

Does this industry sound like the sort of thing a democracy should tolerate?

While a number of unanswered questions remain, The Information Commissioner’s letter highlighted that the ICO’s investigation has exposed ‘systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic system’. However, it did not go further in detailing what the fixes could be. To be fair, that is not the ICO’s job.

This is a political problem and it will only be solved when voters and politicians decide that it has to be solved.

Our report details what needs to be done.

What are we waiting for?

Russian Money

21/09/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Russian Money”

Two months ago the Intelligence and Security Committee revealed to us all that successive Conservative Governments have sat on the problem of Russian interference in UK democracy.

One of the problems they highlighted was the amount of foreign money that could be making its way into the UK.

Now, leaked FinCEN documents from Deutsche Bank allegedly shows us that the partner of one of the Conservative Party’s largest private donors seems to have a very close financial relationship with Suleyman Kerimov, a billionaire Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin.

Lubov Chernukhin, a British citizen and the donor in question, has donated £1.7 million to the Conservative Party over the last eight years. The leaked FinCen documents suggest that her husband, Vladimir Chernukhin, who is not a British citizen, was sent £6.1 million by Kerimov.

This is yet more evidence that we need a proper inquiry into the question of foreign interference – both financial and digital – in UK democracy.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report pointed to the fact that UK electoral regulators lacked the teeth to pursue these matters adequately.

All of Chernukhin’s donations were properly reported to the Electoral Commission but the EC needs the authority to investigate the true source of such a large contribution.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s announcement in July that the UK would be implementing its own version of the Magnitsky Act – whereby foreign nationals suspected of human rights abuses are banned from visiting or spending money in this country – is a welcome step in the right direction.

Yet as openDemocracy highlighted at the time, we need to go further. Surely a place to start would be cleaning up political donations?

This state of affairs not only undermines UK democracy, it makes our attempts to promote better governance around the world (such as the Magnitsky Act) seem hypocritical, especially when it comes on the back of controversial plans to break international law.

We can be better than this.

MPs and Voters Denied a Voice

18/09/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “MPs and Voters Denied a Voice”

Coming on the back of a highly publicised Government attempt to breach international law and undermine their own Brexit agreement, the farce of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s anti-remote Parliament was thrown into stark relief on Wednesday when MPs had to again form a 1km+ long queue just to vote.

The cancellation of remote proceedings back in June has effectively disenfranchised millions of voters as MPs that need to shield have no way of voting or being heard in Parliament. Let’s remind ourselves: these MPs are following the Government’s own COVID-19 advice and doing the right thing to protect themselves or vulnerable members of their household. 

Why should they (and their constituents) be punished for that?

This week, even Keir Starmer was denied the ability to remotely question the Prime Minister when a potential COVID-19 case in his family consigned him to his home.

A hybrid arrangement existed in Westminster until June and it worked. Fair Vote UK’s report Democracy in the Age of Pandemic commended the sensible mix of social distancing and remote functioning. Similar arrangements continue to work in Scotland, Wales and even the House of Lords.

When the House of Lords is more modern than you then something has to be wrong.

This may not seem like the biggest problem in the world right now but it goes beyond merely inconveniencing MPs with a long and boring wait.

Geraint Davies, MP for Swansea West, has called the arrangement a symptom of a wider problem. Namely, this Government’s willingness to sideline Parliament and run roughshod over our democratic traditions and conventions. Ironically, Davies’ own bill seeking to address the problem had to be presented by Dawn Butler MP as the former is himself shielding.

The people of Swansea deserve better. Everyone in this country deserves better.

As Davies wrote: ‘The taxpayer has already invested heavily in technology that worked well until June in the House of Commons, so the purpose of my Bill is to reinstate this entirely functional system.’

What could be more reasonable than that?

Threats to Abolish the Electoral Commission

02/09/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Threats to Abolish the Electoral Commission”

Fix, don’t abolish.

Amanda Milling MP, Co-Chairperson of the Conservative Party, last weekend issued a stark warning to the Electoral Commission: reform or be dismantled.

Milling, writing in The Telegraph, was repeating her party’s submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of electoral regulation. 

She complained that the Commission’s remit was muddled and its structure unaccountable. She also chastised their stated desire to possess prosecutorial powers. Perhaps most striking was the desire to bring the Commission under direct Government authority.

Fair Vote UK agrees that the Commission needs to change – and we stressed this in our own submission to the review – but Milling’s main protests are disingenuous and circular in logic.

Firstly, The Electoral Commission is accountable. To Parliament, not Government. This is designed to ensure its non-partisan political independence. It reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons, is governed by the rule of law and is answerable to the courts. Independent regulatory bodies of this type are a common part of the UK constitution.

Ask yourself, would an electoral regulator directly answerable to No. 10 be trusted as independent?

Secondly, if the Electoral Commission does indeed have an ‘unclear rulebook’, then isn’t that the fault of the politicians that created it? The Commission was established by an Act of Parliament and could(/should) be reformed by one.

The Commission is not attempting to ‘give itself more powers without recourse to the Government or Parliament’, but rather asking for the right tools to continue doing its job.

Thirdly, why shouldn’t the Commission have prosecutorial powers? Many UK regulators have this authority. It is reasonable for the one that oversees our democratic processes to be the same. 

Milling claims there is a conflict of interest if the body which provides operational advice and drafts guidance on the law, then has a role as an arbiter and prosecutor of that law, despite this contradicting the function of most regulators. As the Commission argued in its own submission to the CSPL’s review, the guidance on its responsibility has allowed it – in the vast majority of cases – to foster a culture of compliance before the fact rather than punishment after.

If the Commission has ‘neither the capacity nor the competence to act as a prosecutor’ then we should instead be giving it the capacity, not floating the idea of abolishing it.

Every democracy in the world right now is grappling with the question of protecting democratic processes in the digital age. Why would we choose this moment to threaten our regulator with abolition?

Let’s support it and give it what it needs.

Premonitions from Across the Atlantic

28/08/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Premonitions from Across the Atlantic”

Anti-democratic malefactors are winning in the United States. This is what it looks like.

The Republican-majority Senate recently released an intelligence report, which conceded that Russia and others had significant influence in the 2016 election (surprise, surprise). Nothing has been done to prevent this from happening again.

Since 2016, the situation has only worsened.

The divisions forged on the internet by bots, hate-mongering and sophisticated targeting techniques are turning into increasingly explosive real-life conflicts.

The incredibly toxic and divisive social media environment created and enabled by tech conglomerates, international and foreign malefactors, and the current unprincipled administration is seeping into real life with alarming regularity.

A 17-year old is charged with murdering two Black Lives Matter protestors after being radicalized by hateful rhetoric online. The lies spun on social media in order to garner support for Trump have once again – nope, this isn’t the first time – incited murder.

The way the American public was manipulated, lied to, and gaslighted is a crime.

In addition to relying on social media sites to spin his “alternative facts”, Trump has suggested postponing the 2020 election and is currently sabotaging the US postal service in order to prevent mail in votes from costing him the election. According to the Washington Post, Trump told 25 lies in his speech accepting the Republican nomination. This is textbook fascism.

With the country in complete disarray, a neglected pandemic breaking new records every day, intense political and racial contentions everywhere, and a government with no interest in being accountable to its citizens, the US is a premonition for those of us in countries that have not yet fully fallen to the tide of fascism.

Countless videos of extreme police brutality and misconduct, especially against people of color, serve as a reminder that fascism and the erosion of democracy happens gradually at first – but then all at once.

Here in the UK, it is still happening gradually, but we are headed towards all-at-once.

The 20 reforms laid out in our report Defending Democracy in the Digital Age would drastically diminish political organizations’ ability to radicalize citizens and politicize every topic under the sun.

There is still time for us here in the UK, and we can learn a harrowing lesson from looking across the pond.

The buck stops here.

We at Fair Vote UK are up for the fight, as always. It is not too late.

 

Fair Vote UK Submits to Committee on Standards in Public Life

20/08/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Fair Vote UK Submits to Committee on Standards in Public Life”

The momentum behind sensible democratic reform is growing!

Building on last week’s good news about the introduction of digital imprints, today Fair Vote UK submitted to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of electoral regulation.

The CSPL’s inquiry is looking specifically at the regulation of electoral finance and the role of the Electoral Commission. It was a similar review by the CSPL that led to the creation of the Electoral Commission and our current regulatory framework in 2000.

The Electoral Commission is a world renowned institution but how could a regulatory framework devised twenty years ago possibly still be fair? Think how different the world was then…

Fairness and trust were at the heart of Fair Vote UK’s submission. 

The former creates the latter; if fairness is not upheld, then trust will erode. This is exactly what we have seen happen in recent years, as organisations bend the rules and get away with it.

The Electoral Commission needs a new charter from Parliament that significantly increases its power and resourcing. The Commission needs to be able to act faster, audit wider and deeper, utilise academic expertise, establish regional offices, bring prosecutions and administer substantially larger fines.

The rules the Commission is responsible for enforcing also need to be made clearer and more robust. The digital revolution has introduced significant loopholes into our regulatory regime. These must be closed if democracy is to thrive in the 21st century.

It may seem like things move very slowly in this area but they do move!

Last week’s announcement on digital imprints is evidence of this.

The Cabinet Office has invited Fair Vote UK to contribute to the technical consultation on digital imprints and we will be using the opportunity to push for rules that are as robust as possible. Imprints should be clear, embedded on the image and state clearly who has paid for the content, why you are seeing it and who else it is being targeted at.

If concerned citizens maintain pressure then change does happen. Thank you to everyone that has supported Fair Vote UK’s work in these often worrying years.

A Big Win Today: Digital Imprints Will Become a Legal Requirement

12/08/2020 Posted by APPG, News 0 thoughts on “A Big Win Today: Digital Imprints Will Become a Legal Requirement”

Today was a big win!

The Cabinet Office has announced that political parties and campaigning organisations will soon be required to include digital imprints on all online campaign material.

Fair Vote UK and the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency that we secretariat welcome this reform. Digital imprints were a central recommendation of the report – Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age – that we jointly published in January.

The imprints will show who produced the material and, importantly, who paid for it. The rules will also apply for the entire year and not just during election periods. This is a particularly encouraging detail as we now live in an age of permanent campaigning and the rules should be updated to reflect this reality.

Fair Vote UK and the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency will now seek assurances from the Cabinet Office that the new rules will require the imprints to be clearly visible and actually on the image or video that is being promoted. 

This reform must be the first step in a bold updating of the UK’s electoral law, which has not been changed in nearly 20 years. 

The Electoral Commission must also be strengthened by Parliament so it can properly ensure that these regulations are adhered to. 

Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK said: “This reform is a boost for democracy. It will put power in the hands of the voter and allow all of us to make better informed decisions. This is not a moment for rest though. Fair Vote UK will continue to push for the other 19 recommendations in our report and an electoral regime that has transparency and fairness at its core.”

Stephen Kinnock MP, Chair of the APPG said:This is a welcome and common sense proposal that would bring online campaigning rules in line with the regulation that already exists for print, TV and radio material. Mandatory digital imprints was just one of 20 recommendations in our APPG’s report Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age, published in January 2020. It will greatly increase transparency and lead to a better informed public and a better quality of public debate. Yet, as our report shows, there is much more that needs to be done. The Government should seize the opportunity to modernise the rules and create a democracy fit for the digital age.”

 

 

 

Electoral Commission submit to the CSPL

05/08/2020 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Electoral Commission submit to the CSPL”

This week the Electoral Commission published their submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s (CSPL) review of electoral regulation. You can read a summary and the full submission here.

The CSPL’s inquiry is looking specifically at the regulation of electoral finance and the role – strengths and weaknesses – of the Electoral Commission. It was a similar review by the CSPL that led to the creation of the Electoral Commission and our current regulatory framework in 2000. 

This is a very important and hopeful moment!

Fair Vote UK are delighted to announce that the Electoral Commission’s submission has independently echoed many of the recommendations that we’ve been campaigning for over the last few years.

The Electoral Commission rightly identified transparency, proportionality and enforceability as the principles that should govern the UK’s regulatory regime.

Current weaknesses were identified as: 

  • A lack of transparency (especially in the digital sphere); 
  • A legal/prosecutorial framework that is disjointed, confusing and in need of rationalisation;
  • Weak deterrence capabilities.

 

These all echo points made in our report: Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age, published by Fair Vote UK in January.

Their submission rightly reminded us that though the Electoral Commission is a respected and world renowned election regulator, it needs an updated mandate and the necessary resources to be able to do their job in an election landscape that has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. 

In short, it needs more teeth. With a few tweaks this is very achievable!

Their submission expressed a desire to be able to work faster, audit non-political organisations (such as tech companies), work more closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office & police and have their deterrence capabilities boosted (with the upper limit of fines lifted from £20,000 to £500,000). Fair Vote UK made similar recommendations in January and we re-indorse them again now. Reforms along these lines would bring the Electoral Commission’s powers in sync with similarly sized UK regulators. 

We also welcome the announcement that the Electoral Commission plans to build “in house” prosecutorial functions. This reform would simplify the currently incoherent system, ease the burden on police/public prosecutors and allow the Electoral Commission to utilise their expertise and specific focus.

Fair Vote UK will be submitting our own evidence to the inquiry soon, as well as a joint submission with Open Rights Group specifically focussed on the important but overlooked question of valuing datasets. We will again be reiterating many of the points raised by the Electoral Commission.

These are promising times!

A 21st Century Crisis

31/07/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “A 21st Century Crisis”

It’s been quite a week:

  • Nancy Pelosi & leading Democrats claim to see evidence that “foreign powers” are attempting to interfere with the workings of Congress and the upcoming US election;
  • Oh wait, Trump wants to delay that election because of the non-existent problem of mail fraud?
  • Antitrust hearings take the big tech giants to task for their monopolistic models;
  • Over here our own Russia Report tells us that almost nothing has been done about Russian interference into UK democracy;
  • And users are forced to boycott Twitter over their unwillingness to remove overtly antisemitic tweets posted by a celebrity musician;
  • UK ministers applaud the boycott from the sidelines, seemingly forgetting the fact they are the ones that could mandate Twitter to do something about it.

 

All in a week’s work. For concerned citizens it is overwhelming. Too much information to take in and process. We used to rely on editors to do that job for us… 

The world’s anti-democratic malefactors may not have designed this state of affairs but it certainly suits their agenda.

We are used to the 20th century model of democratic death: the army takes over, elections are suspended and protest is forbidden. 

But democracies in the 21st century won’t die the same way. Instead the facade of democracy will continue – elections will carry on, our leaders will be “politicians” – but the core will have been hollowed out.

This is not speculation. It has already happened. Look at Poland, where Andrzej Duda was just narrowly re-elected. Look at Russia. Look at Hungary. Look at Turkey. Democracy is fragile.

We at Fair Vote UK say enough is enough. We will not be next. And we’re up for the fight.

It is not too late. 

The Russia Report & A Dangerous Culture of Inaction

21/07/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “The Russia Report & A Dangerous Culture of Inaction”

Today the long anticipated publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia Report’ has revealed a dangerous culture of inaction at the top of the British state.

Despite mounting evidence of Russian interference in the UK’s democratic process over half a decade (including during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the EU referendum of 2016 and the general election of 2017), our Government has never conducted risk assessments of Russian-based or any foreign interference threat after the above mentioned events.

Stewart Hosie MP, a member of the Committee, was particularly critical of successive UK Governments at the launch of the report, accusing ministers of ‘actively avoiding’ this issue.

The wide-ranging report concluded that Moscow makes a concerted effort to disrupt UK democracy, with online disinformation campaigns a central part of the strategy. It is unclear at our end which organisation is responsible for dealing with this threat. 

The report also called for social media companies to do more to remove ‘covert hostile state material’ from their platforms and encouraged the UK Government to name and shame those that do not. It also highlighted the fact the Electoral Commission and other relevant agencies currently lack the ‘weight and access’ to tackle this problem. 

The uncomfortable and oft-underreported fact that the UK – and London in particular – has become a hotbed of Russian money laundering and corruption was also a headline conclusion of the report.

It is shocking that, in the face of such all-encompassing problems, our Government has done next to nothing about the Russian challenge.

It is indicative of a larger threat to our democracy: inaction driven by a perceived short-term benefit.

Under-resourcing and under-valuing of the institutions central to our democracy is now an endemic problem in this country. We have to start protecting and emboldening our democratic institutions. They are not invulnerable. They will wither on the vine if not continuously supported.

Fair Vote UK have been focussed on this problem for years. Our report – Defending Our Democracy in the Digital Age – called for many of the reforms that the ISC’s Inquiry have now re-highlighted.

Next week Fair Vote UK will be submitting to yet another inquiry being conducted by the influential Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Really, another inquiry? After half a decade since major flaws in our electoral system were most recently exposed it seems pretty clear we’ve thoroughly inquired.

We need our elected representatives to do something about it. Now is the time to take action.