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Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Advises MPs on Digital Regulation

20/10/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Advises MPs on Digital Regulation”

Yesterday afternoon, former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang testified to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill (you can watch the full testimony here).

This comes after she spoke out in April against her former employer.

Zhang’s allegations strongly reinforced what Frances Haugen said before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week:

Facebook is knowingly allowing the propagation of large-scale disinformation campaigns because, to put it simply, executives can’t stomach even the smallest hit to their bottom line. 

Here is an overview of the situation to date with Facebook. Their role in choosing profits over human safety, and propagating targeted hateful, misleading and abusive content has undermined democracy and led to real events with real consequences – the insurrection on January 6th, for example.

Zhang, whose former role involved dealing with bots and fake accounts, gave Members of Parliament a good idea of how severe the problems are.

She claimed to have direct experience with bringing issues to the attention of executives and being shot down. When she brought concerns about fake Facebook accounts manipulating elections in Honduras, she claims the company failed to “agree on the importance” of the dilemma.

“The people charged with making important decisions about what the rules are and how the rules are getting enforced are the same as those charged with keeping good relationships with local politicians and governmental members”, she explained.

She also gave an illuminating perspective on how the Draft Online Safety Bill should contend with giant tech platforms like Facebook.

Zhang testified that allowing social media companies to conduct their own internal risk assessments would likely lead to them “pretend[ing] that the problem doesn’t exist”, and thus not reporting to Ofcom.

Instead of the self-reporting model, Zhang advocated for Ofcom and external regulators and digital experts to test and assess the platforms’ efficacy in keeping users safe from misinformation and abuse.

Facebook is making little to no progress towards a consistent policy on dealing with the safety of its users.

Thanks to whistleblowers like Haugen and Zhang, the public is finally beginning to get the full picture. In what many are calling Facebook’s “Big Tobacco Moment“, citizens and government officials across the political spectrum are beginning to understand the importance of comprehensive reform to the digital space.

It’s critical that the Online Safety Bill – as well as other similar attempts at digital regulation globally – gets it right. We can’t allow platforms like Facebook to pull at the social fabric of nations around the world for much longer – the consequences will only get more severe.

Voter ID Will Not Bolster Electoral Integrity

20/08/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Voter ID Will Not Bolster Electoral Integrity”

As the debate on mandatory voter identification continues in the UK, the realities of such requirements are plainly visible across the Atlantic.

The US has been having this same debate since the Jim Crow era.  Seven Republican-dominated US states now have voter ID laws as strict as what the UK Government is proposing. These laws are implemented by state governments that also gerrymander, purge voter roles, and restrict voter registration. A lot of this legislation came directly in the wake of Democratic victories at the state level in 2020. It’s clear what their goal is.

One such bill in Georgia, SB241, included measures to end voting by mail without providing a reason alongside stringent voter id requirements. This brings to mind the UK Government’s proposals in the Electoral Integrity Bill to limit postal voting by requiring voters to re-apply every 3 years (before every general election). More similar still, Republican representatives pointed to voter fraud risk when challenged on the legislation’s intentions. The same boogeyman was used for the same purpose: disenfranchising the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Nevertheless, the UK Government continues to back plans for voter ID requirements, despite the fact that these requirements will alienate voters and cost taxpayers millions of pounds. In response to a petition to require ID verification for social media usage, this same Government even directly stated that “3.5 million people do not have a valid photo ID”.

Renfrewshire SNP Councillors wrote in June to the Prime Minister, accusing the UK Government of “attacking the poor”. They’re correct to think so. The Government’s own commissioned research has demonstrated that vulnerable groups were less likely to hold any form of photo ID.

Chloe Smith MP responded that the Government would continue with its plans. Echoing US Republicans, she stated that voter fraud is “a crime we cannot allow room for.” This response, dubbed a “whitewash” by the SNP Councillors, neglects to address any of the tangible concerns that many people in the UK have regarding voter id requirements. Our friends at the Electoral Reform Society hope to use the incident as a case study.

Voter fraud itself is practically non-existent, mentioned solely as a justification to allow for draconian controls on who can vote and who can not. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to come up much in other contexts. According to the Electoral Commission, only 4 convictions for voter fraud occurred in the 2019 general election (this tiny number is also higher than in many previous elections).

Additionally, the Voter ID section of the bill leaves a startling amount undecided. How will Councils orchestrate the supposed ‘free election identification document’ for everyone? how will it be paid for? how is this actually going to work? The bill makes provisions for ministers to make many of these decisions down the line, leaving the scale of possibilities frighteningly wide.

The worst part of all of this is that the UK electoral system is in dire need of reform. We need to better regulate third parties, expand voting access, and modernise our democracy to be fit for the digital age. We don’t need to be ripping out pages of the US Republican playbook.

Some parts of Chloe Smith’s Elections Bill even take small steps in the directions we need to be moving in, such as campaign finance and digital imprints. All of that progress is eradicated when you include policies like voter ID, part of a US policy package that American voting rights activist Stacey Abrams calls “a redux Jim Crowe in a Suit”.

Those of us that care about the integrity of the UK’s electoral system have many ideas on how to fix it, but first we need to take blatant voter suppression policies off the table.

Antitrust Investigations into Facebook are Long Overdue

08/06/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Antitrust Investigations into Facebook are Long Overdue”

The European Commission and UK Regulators have formally opened antitrust investigations into Facebook.

It’s about time. 

The investigations, while not focused on the significant democratic harms enabled by the platform, are beginning to scratch the surface of Facebook’s unethical data harvesting business model, back in the spotlight again recently when a data breach of over 500 million users was made public.

The platform has nearly 3 billion monthly active users, all being discreetly surveilled in the background of nearly every single one of Facebook’s features. 

Both investigations are primarily concerned with the vast troves of user data that Facebook holds, and whether that gives them an undue advantage in the online advertising market (it seems fairly obvious that it may). The European Commission is also concerned with whether Facebook benefits from holding data on rival advertisers (again, it probably does). 

This gets to the core of why this platform is so powerful, and in terms of democratic health and societal cohesion, so destructive.

While investigating Facebook’s unfair monopolisation of digital advertising is worthwhile, it gives credence to what activists like us have been saying for years: data-driven targeted advertising, especially when it comes to political ads, is short-sighted, dangerous and unethical. Targeted controversy generates clicks, and clicks generate revenue. Facebook has a clear incentive to undermine truth and democracy.

Fair Vote UK is working to build a stronger coalition around online safety. We hope to use investigations like these as stepping stones to tackling the core problem – an immoral and unsustainable business model that is desperately calling for regulation. 

Some experts have called for nationalising Facebook, arguing that “social media platforms need to be treated like public roads, not private malls.” It doesn’t have to come to that, but Facebook’s extremely toxic business model can not go on much longer without a repeat of January 6th (or something even worse). Let’s tackle this obvious problem before it truly gets out of hand. 

We can’t do it without you. Let’s end the wild west era of technology, and usher in a more stable, regulated and ethical internet. Support us

The Cure for Cronyism: Transparency & Accountability

27/04/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “The Cure for Cronyism: Transparency & Accountability”

Over the last few years, government sleaze, favoritism and duplicity have come to centre stage in political debate. From the Expenses scandal in 2009 to the Panama Papers leak in 2016, the public has become increasingly desensitized to felonious and underhanded government conduct. A troubling lack of accountability and justice has left bad actors feeling emboldened and untouchable. That brings us to where we stand in 2021 in the face of brazen cronyism: shocked, but not surprised. 

The powers of public office have been routinely abused, with the current party of Government allegedly abusing its power to benefit its members and their friends, silence its opponents and avoid any and all responsibility for its own failures of governance. 

Democracy is unable to function properly under these circumstances.

When money and personal connections translate directly into political influence, individual voices are inevitably silenced. Cronyism is antithetical to democracy. 

The Conservative government under PM Boris Johnson faces a number of allegations concerning sleazy behaviour. To name a few: 

– “VIP lanes” for receiving COVID-19 contracts from the government based on political connections

– Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock favouring personal connections in giving out taxpayer money. 

Leaked texts between Boris Johnson and Sir James Dyson, Johnson promising to “fix” tax concerns for Dyson Limited. 

– The Greensill scandal (Which Parliament voted 357-252 to block a cross-party inquiry into) 

Government encroachment on our tax-funded civil service which needs to remain independent. 

The list goes on. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour has become par for the course and billions of pounds of your taxpayer money are at stake. As a democratic society, we have a responsibility to make sure that money is spent according to the will of the people, not as partisan favours or through backroom deals. 

As we outlined in our 2020 report Democracy in the Digital Age, the rules need to be changed in favour of more transparency and accountability – to embody the democratic principles that modern Britain purports to champion. We can’t change this broken system without meaningful legislative changes. Let’s get to work.

Join us in standing for accountability.

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!

Running a Democracy in the Covid-19 World

27/03/2020 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Running a Democracy in the Covid-19 World”

It has been another extraordinary week with lockdown measures intensifying across the world. As we all start to acclimatise to a reality that would have been unimaginable only weeks ago, the conversation has started to shift to the political and social impact of this pandemic.

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”

That was Yuval Noah Harrari’s take in a particularly prescient article for the Financial Times that you can read here.

One thing that has received scant attention, however, is the practical question of how a democracy can continue to function during a crisis that shuts people in their homes and could last up to 18 months with the possibility of more disruption beyond that.

It is now impossible to imagine many core components of our democracy – from demonstrations and voting to Parliamentary debates and select committees – continuing as they did before.

That is why Fair Vote UK is turning its attention towards addressing this fundamentally important question.

From Estonia’s long established system of e-voting to the EU Parliament’s recent decision to move to email voting, there are many examples from across the world of how to make remote democracy work in a practical and easy way.

This is the time to think outside the box!

Fair Vote UK are looking forward to engaging with our supporters on this issue. Stay tuned for the opening of our consultation period, when we would love to hear any ideas you have.

Public Inquiry Case Update

23/10/2019 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Public Inquiry Case Update”

We have a further update on our legal battle to secure a public inquiry into wrongdoing during the EU referendum campaign.

 

Last October, Fair Vote UK issued a judicial review to challenge the Government’s unwillingness to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU Referendum. We wanted to ensure that vital lessons could be learned from a public inquiry and applied in future referendums and elections, including through urgent changes in the law.

 

Much has changed since then and we have, with the advice of our lawyers, made the difficult decision to withdraw our case for a judicial review. 

 

Our case for a Public Inquiry has been made more difficult by the many different Parliamentary inquiries, reviews and government consultations that have started since we first started out legal battle. These investigations and initiatives, such as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Electoral Law inquiry; the government’s announcement of a range of new measures to safeguard UK elections; and the government’s Online Harms White Paper could possibly generate evidence and proposals that would address some of the issues that an EU referendum public inquiry would cover. We believe that the risk is high that the Courts will side with the government’s decision to reject the request for a public inquiry whilst these processes run their course. The decision to retreat has been hard but we are sure it was the right one given how likely it was that the court would refuse permission for our judicial review.

 

We are not giving up in any way our fight to uncover the whole truth about what happened during the 2016 EU referendum. We still believe that only a comprehensive public inquiry will get to the bottom of the wrongdoings during the EU referendum campaign. It is still crucial that the truth is exposed and decision makers are compelled to make the structural changes necessary to safeguard our democracy. 

APPG Inquiry Formally Opens – Share your expertise

07/06/2019 Posted by APPG, News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “APPG Inquiry Formally Opens – Share your expertise”

We have formally opened a written evidence submission period for the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.  It will be open until 25 July 2019 at 5pm. If you have specialised knowledge or would simply like to contribute, you can do so here:

https://forms.gle/y4CbwxcEt4KmjRtV8

Please note we have a commitment to transparency. This means all submissions will be publicly available. We look forward to hearing from you, and please do share this link with other people you believe will be positive contributions.

You can find more information on the APPG here