Posts in News

Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!

03/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!”

On Monday the Electoral Commission turned 20! 

Celebrations at the independent regulator were likely subdued, however, after an autumn that has seen senior Conservatives ramp up attacks on the Commission with threats to bring it under political control and even abolish it.

The Electoral Commission was established in 2000 to bring much needed transparency and accountability to the UK’s broken and unregulated political donations environment.

Who remembers the 1990s? When every week seemed to bring a new scandal around party financing.

You don’t even need time travel to see what an unregulated electoral environment looks like. Just check across the Atlantic, where electoral regulation is weak and politics is awash with unaccountable money and untransparent lobbying. It’s part of the reason why special interest groups – like the gun lobby – can do so well despite holding minority positions.

The Electoral Commission is respected around the world and does a good job with the little resources and power it has.

But the world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. The internet has reintroduced the bad old days of hidden money and dodgy campaigning. The Electoral Commission wasn’t designed to deal with this. How could it have been?

Let’s make it a great birthday and give it the powers it needs to protect us for the next 20 years and beyond.

Our report – Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age – outlined the twenty ways to do just that, from increasing fines to giving the Commission prosecutorial capabilities.

In the UK the pensions regulator is allowed to prosecute but the regulator charged with protecting our democracy isn’t… Does that seem right to you?

How to End Infodemics

25/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “How to End Infodemics”

The Forum on Information & Democracy recently published a comprehensive report – How to End Infodemics – that details what action governments can take to tackle this scourge.

Spoiler alert: it is yet more evidence that we need regulatory reform. To make it more digestible, Fair Vote UK’s team have put together a summary here.

Infodemic is a term given to the rapid spread of misinformation. In the internet age, tech giants have turbocharged an old problem by creating platforms that privilege sensationalistic and untrustworthy content over factually reliable news.

In 2020 the problem has been dramatically highlighted by the rapid spread of extremely harmful COVID-19 misinformation.

Going forward it is imperative that we tackle this problem forcefully. Not just to ensure the COVD-19 recovery is not hampered but to protect democratic culture full stop. 

Misinformation creates a fractured and untrusting public. And a fractured and untrusting public is incapable of agreeing on the problems facing society, let alone on what should be done to fix them. That is very bad for democracy.

We have seen that tech self-regulation does not work. The Forum on Information & Democracy’s report calls on governments to do more to tackle this problem and outlines four key areas to focus on:

  1. Transparency.
  2. Regulation of Content Moderation.
  3. Platform Design.
  4. Closed Messaging Safeguarding.

 

Many of the report’s conclusions independently mirror the recommendations that we published in January.

Consensus is building on the need to do something about this problem. Now is the time for advocacy to evolve into policy. The health of the public and the health of democracy depends on it.

Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.

12/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.”

“Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.”

→ Kyle Taylor, Founder & Director of Fair Vote UK.

Kyle was speaking at an Aspen Institute Live Webinar on the 22nd of October and the words have already taken on heightened meaning. The conversation, ‘The Future of Data and Democracy’, is now available to listen to here.

The news from the USA may be good but the fight is not over.

Indeed, with establishment Republicans showing a worrying willingness to indulge Trump’s election lies, that fight may have already arrived and it’s not even been a week.

Yet even when Biden is finally secure in the White House (which is not a foregone conclusion), that should not be a sign to rest on our laurels. All progressives and reformers must push his administration to implement the reforms to democracy, regulation and big tech that are so desperately needed.

There have been some promising early signs that this is on the Biden team’s agenda.

Let’s keep them to their word.

Here in the UK the fight is also heating up.

Despite spending years degrading the news and information landscape to devastating effect, Facebook have had one of its top executives put on a panel to advise on UK broadcasting rules by our Government.

Do we want a Government that has the interests of citizens or the interests of big business and big tech at heart? The two are increasingly mutually exclusive. 

Biden’s victory in the USA is being talked of as a turning point. 

It can be, but only if we remain vigilant.

Trump’s Desperate Lies & The Future of Democracy

05/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Trump’s Desperate Lies & The Future of Democracy”

Many of you – like us at the Fair Vote UK Team – are likely sleep deprived and a little anxious today.

Nothing is certain yet but one definitive statement we can make at this stage is: The current American President does not believe in the rule of law and does not believe in democracy.

Trump’s shameful and dishonest behaviour since Tuesday must be a final wake up call to us all.

The good news: The democratic process will continue despite his desperate attempts to subdue it.

Whatever the final result ends up being, we must now fight to preserve and strengthen the culture and the institutions of democracy. That means:

  • Taking on the anti-democratic power and influence of big tech;
  • Supporting, resourcing and celebrating the key democratic organisations: regulators, postal services, public institutions;
  • Reintroducing transparency to the heart of the democratic process.

 

This is a fight for the US, the UK and the whole world. It may not be sexy to talk about election safeguarding but there are few things as significant. Democracy is more than Elections. Democracy is our way of life. Is there anything more important?

The American Election

02/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “The American Election”

Last week the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google were pulled in front of the US Senate’s Commerce Committee for the latest in what has now become a long series of largely ineffectual big tech hearings.

We first learned four years ago of the true scale of the problems these tech “disruptors” were creating for democracy. 

Since then there have been numerous hearings of this kind, with representatives of big tech hauled before legislatures in Washington, D.C., London and around the world.

Since then we’ve also learned a lot more about the problem. We even have a name for it: surveillance capitalism.

Yet what has actually changed?

No significant regulatory laws have been passed.

Here in the UK the Government will soon (finally!) be implementing a key Fair Vote UK demand: digital imprints. This is welcome but it is a piecemeal response to what is a major crisis.

In the US, activists and civil rights campaigners (including our founder and director Kyle Taylor), made desperate by the inaction of policymakers, have been forced to conduct their own scrutiny and create The Real Facebook Oversight Board.

Regardless of tomorrow’s US election outcome, we cannot waste anymore time. We must get serious about tech regulation and ensure both the US and the UK are again leading lights of progressivism and democratic values. It won’t be easy but nothing that’s worth it ever is.

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.